Freedom takes strong stomachs, but many of us have indigestion

Sunday, July 11, 2004

“Liberty is a food easy to eat, but hard to digest; it takes very strong stomachs to stand it.”

It may have been written in 1772, but Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s famous aphorism captures America’s ambivalent attitude toward freedom in 2004. The findings of the latest State of the First Amendment survey are in — and many Americans seem to suffer from a bad case of civic indigestion.

Conducted each year by the First Amendment Center, the 2004 poll starts with the good news. Only 30% of Americans feel that the First Amendment “goes too far” in the rights it guarantees. That’s a drop from the nearly 50% in 2002 who thought we had too much freedom (a response that was likely influenced by the 9/11 terrorist attacks).

But this surge of good feeling about the First Amendment doesn’t necessarily translate into support for keeping government from interfering with our freedoms — which is, of course, what the First Amendment is intended to do.

Most at risk? Freedom of the press. A startling 42% of Americans believe that the press in America has too much freedom. What’s an example of “too much”? According to 41% of respondents, newspapers should not be allowed to freely criticize the U.S. military about its strategy and performance.

Despite this readiness to rein in the press, many Americans still want to know more about what the government is doing. Half of those surveyed, for example, say they have “too little access” to information about the federal government’s war on terrorism.

Talk about a disconnect. Without a free press, where would Americans get information about government actions? In a nation committed to democratic freedom, an independent and free press is the most important check on state secrecy and power.

Freedom of speech doesn’t fare much better. Large numbers of Americans are all for free speech — unless it might offend someone (which covers, of course, most speech). If you were hoping for the “politically correct” craze to die down, forget it. Look at these numbers:

  • 38% would bar musicians from singing songs “with lyrics that others might find offensive.”
  • 44% wouldn’t allow people to say things in public that “might be offensive to religious groups.”
  • A remarkable 63% say people shouldn’t be able to say things in public that “might be offensive to racial groups.”

Most people would start early teaching kids about the need to ban potentially offensive speech. A whopping 72% of respondents would not allow public school students to wear a T-shirt with a message or picture that others might — might — find offensive. That wipes out most of what students put on their shirts, including any and all political or religious messages.

What about freedom of religion? That depends on how you define it. You’ll be disheartened if you believe (as I do) that keeping government out of religion is essential for religious liberty. But if you advocate more mixing of church and state, you’ll be encouraged by the survey results.

Sixty-six percent of respondents favor government funding of social-service programs run by churches — even when the program is delivered with a religious message. And 68% support allowing government officials to post the Ten Commandments inside government buildings. So much for Thomas Jefferson’s wall of separation.

Many Americans are clearly having a hard time defining the meaning of “freedom.” But they seem to understand a key source of the problem: 67% say schools are doing a fair or poor job of teaching kids about the First Amendment.

Do most Americans today favor freedom? Of course we do — that’s the easy part. But the reality of freedom in daily life is often messy and controversial — and constantly challenging. Rousseau was right: It takes very strong stomachs to stand it.