Nearly 4 in 10 Americans favor government limits on humor after terrorist attacks

Friday, March 1, 2002

ASPEN, Colo. — Nearly 40% of Americans favor the government stepping in to limit comedy routines that make light of events such as the World Trade Center attacks, according to a new nationwide survey by the First Amendment Center. Results were released here today at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, which runs through March 2.

Majorities of Americans also would not allow public comments — funny or not — that might offend racial or religious groups. Thirty-five percent say the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees, and 43% favor government regulation of what appears on television.

More than 75% would permit potentially offensive humor when presented to audiences that pay to see or hear the performance, such as subscription TV services. In contrast, only 58% offered the same support when the performance would be shown on network television.

The survey, conducted in February for the First Amendment Center by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut, in partnership with the USCAF, suggests a significant percentage of those surveyed are reluctant to give full First Amendment protection to comedic speech, art or performances that could potentially insult or offend others.

“This continues a trend seen in our annual survey on these issues,” said Ken Paulson, executive director of the First Amendment Center. “Whether to protect the interests of religious or racial groups or simply to protect the audience from being offended, substantial numbers of Americans seem willing to surrender some liberties in exchange for fewer hurt feelings.”

The survey also found that most Americans continue to embrace the fundamental freedoms of the First Amendment, even if they have some misgivings about how these freedoms are applied. Fifty-nine percent said the First Amendment does not go too far in the rights it guarantees comparable to the level of support reported just before the Sept. 11 tragedies.

A complete text of the survey questions and results is available online at the “publications” area of the First Amendment section of

Information about the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival is available on the Web:

Among the survey findings:

  • 39% of those surveyed said they favor government restrictions on public performance of comedy routines that might make light of or trivialize tragedies like the World Trade Center attacks or the Oklahoma City bombing, and 37% favored government restrictions on the performance of these comedy routines on television.
  • 63% said that people should not be allowed to say things in public that might be offensive to racial groups.
  • 58% said that people should not be allowed to say things in public that might be offensive to religious groups.
  • 78% of those surveyed said that comedians should be able to perform potentially offensive comedy routines on subscription cable channels like Cinemax, Showtime or HBO. This level of support drops sharply to 58% if the same routines would be on broadcast networks such as NBC, CBS or ABC.
    The sampling error for 1,001 national interviews is plus or minus 3%.

The First Amendment Center works to preserve and protect First Amendment freedoms through information and education. The center serves as a forum for the study and exploration of free-expression issues, including freedom of speech, of the press and of religion, the right to assemble and petition the government. The First Amendment Center, with offices at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., and Arlington, Va., is an independent affiliate of the Freedom Forum and is associated with the Newseum. Its affiliation with Vanderbilt University is through the Vanderbilt Institute for Public Policy Studies.

Media contacts: Gene Policinski, 615/727-1303; 615/579-5560; or Sarah Trahern, 615/727-1535; or Tam Gordon, 615/727-1321; or Candace Berkman of the U.S Comedy Arts Festival, 970/544-4000; 212/981-5209.