Most Americans grateful for First Amendment, even in wartime

Sunday, November 26, 2006

With so much violent conflict abroad and bitter division at home, here’s some
good news to be thankful for this week: American support for the First Amendment
appears to be on the rise.

At least that’s my optimistic reading of the latest State of the First
Amendment survey
just released by the First Amendment Center.

Consider that four years ago — in the aftermath of 9/11 — almost half of the
American people (49%) agreed that “the First Amendment goes too far in the
rights it guarantees.” But each year since then the numbers have dropped. Today,
only 18% of us think the First Amendment goes too far.

As good as that sounds (to my First Amendment ears), the big question is how
general support for the First Amendment translates into a willingness to protect
speech that many people don’t want to hear.

Should musicians, for example, be allowed to sing songs with lyrics that
others might find offensive? Sixty-three percent say they should, up from 56%
last year.

What about the far more sensitive topic of religion: Should people be allowed
to say things in public that might be offensive to religious groups? According
to the survey, 55% agree that people have that right, up from 48% in 2005.

Only when it comes to race does the “right to offend” fail to get a majority.
Forty-two percent agree that people should be allowed to say things in public
that might be offensive to racial groups, while 55% disagree.

It’s worth noting, however, that when the question about race was first asked
in 1997, only 23% of respondents would allow speech that might be racially
offensive, while 75% would not allow it. That suggests Americans may be moving
away from “political correctness” and toward robust protection for free

Americans also value a free press, but with reservations. Although 47%
believe the press has the right amount of freedom (and 10% think the press
should have more), a significant 40% say that the press has “too much

History tells us that people are more willing to support restrictions on the
press during a national crisis. That’s why it’s somewhat heartening to learn
that 66% of Americans agree that newspapers should be allowed to publish stories
that criticize the government, even during wartime. Of course, the fact that 31%
of us would muzzle the press in a time of war is no cause for celebration.

A majority also would allow the press to publish classified information,
although not without conditions. When asked about whether newspapers should be
allowed to publish “sensitive and classified government information,” only 12%
give an unqualified “yes.” Another 51% support newspapers’ publishing the
information, but only when “it exposes government wrongdoing.” But fully 35% of
us would not allow it at all.

On the subject of voluntary restraints, most people (75%) want newspapers to
honor government requests to withhold publishing information that “might hurt
efforts to win the war on terrorism.”

But if the press followed this advice and self-censored everything the
government thinks “might” hurt the fight against terrorism, our morning paper
would be a quick read indeed. It’s all too easy for politicians to confuse what
hurts the nation with what hurts their reputations.

Overall, the numbers are fairly good for the First Amendment. Am I troubled
by the hard-core third of Americans who would allow the government to restrict
freedom of expression? Of course.

But at a time when fear is the great enemy of freedom, I’m happy to raise a
glass two-thirds full.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 1101
Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. E-mail: