Freedom of expression should be inclusive, not exclusive

Sunday, August 15, 1999

Most Americans believe freedom of the press goes too far.

That was the headline-driving conclusion of our recent survey of public attitudes about free expression in America. A surprising 53% of Americans — up from 38% two years earlier — question the scope of freedom of the press.

Many observers suggest that this shift in public opinion can be traced to coverage of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and other journalistic excesses. In short, Americans appear to be offended by the news media.

Other findings in our survey, however, indicate the public is not just troubled about what it regards as offensive news coverage. There’s a growing intolerance for anything that could prove offensive to anyone: 41% of those polled said musicians should not be allowed to sing songs with words that others might find offensive. Some 57% are opposed to displaying art in a public place if it might be offensive to others. And 78% say that people should not be allowed to use words in public that might be offensive to racial groups.

These figures suggest that Americans are not just concerned about what offends them personally. They’re also uncomfortable with the idea of other people being offended, even if they’re not.

This isn’t the same thing as “political correctness.” By and large, that phrase applies to societal and peer pressure not to offend. The participants in the First Amendment survey were opposed to “allowing” offensive communications, suggesting real governmental restrictions on freedom of expression.

Since the release of our survey, I’ve had a chance to talk with a number of people about the results. On a recent flight, I sat next to a man who works for an executive search firm. He was surprised that I was concerned about protecting unpopular viewpoints.

“Isn’t that the way we do things in this country?” he asked, referring to the tradition of majority rule. “Most people voted for Clinton, didn’t they?” For this man and many other Americans, reflecting the will of the majority is the “American way.” It’s true that we elect officials by majority vote. We approve referenda by majority vote. We pass legislation by majority vote.

But the First Amendment was expressly designed to prevent majority rule from rolling over minority viewpoints. By respecting dissent and alternative forms of expression, we enliven public discourse and enrich our nation.

Disturbing art? Troubling music? Unsettling speech? Some free expression will inevitably be unpalatable. But the “don’t rock the boat” sentiments expressed in the poll would deprive us of our richest legacy.

This is a nation in which every voice counts. Every view counts. Each and every one of us counts. And that truly is the American way.