Panelists discuss public’s attitudes toward First Amendment freedoms

Wednesday, July 21, 1999

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Free-speech and free-press advocates need to do a better job of explaining the crucial role of the First Amendment to the public, panelists at a First Amendment Center discussion said yesterday.

The program, “State of the First Amendment 1999,” examined the results of a First Amendment Center survey of public attitudes about First Amendment freedoms conducted last March.

In the survey, respondents came down most harshly on the news media. A majority of Americans, 53%, said the press had too much freedom, 32% said that newspapers should get government approval for certain stories before publication and 36% said newspapers should not be allowed to endorse or criticize political candidates.

Many of the 1999 results showed a growing intolerance of the news media as compared to the results of the center’s first survey in 1997.

Freedom Forum First Amendment Ombudsman Paul McMasters began the program by presenting an analysis of the 1999 State of the First Amendment report on the survey findings.

McMasters said the findings show that many Americans “think freedom of press belongs to journalists and is not their personal freedom.” He said some of the negative results on free-press questions were the result of the public’s dissatisfaction with the coverage of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.

Though the poll results show that Americans hold freedom of speech in higher regard than freedom of the press, McMasters said some of the survey findings on speech were cause for great concern. Fifty-nine percent of the respondents said that Americans have the right amount of free-speech freedoms, however, support for free speech dropped when the respondents were asked about specific issues.

For example, McMasters cited the result that 57% of Americans believe art with content some may find offensive should not be displayed in a public place.

“Indeed some of the findings in this survey arrive as a jolt to the constitutional conscience,” McMasters wrote in his analysis of the survey.

Frank Sutherlan...
Frank Sutherland

The results jolted at least one panelist. “I am scared by these results,” said Frank Sutherland, editor of The Tennessean. “I don’t like these results and they bother me greatly.”

“These poll results reflect the frustration of people, including myself, at the way the media conducts itself,” said panelist Phil Bredesen, mayor of Nashville.

Panelist Sanford Bohrer, a media attorney from Florida, said the results of the survey questions about press freedoms did not surprise him and should not surprise the mainstream press.

“I don’t think the First Amendment is threatened, but the press has a bully pulpit and they don’t use it to educate the public” about First Amendment freedoms, Bohrer said.

Ken Paulson...
Ken Paulson

Moderator Ken Paulson, the First Amendment Center’s executive director, guided the panelists through a variety of First Amendment issues touched upon by the survey.

Paulson asked Sutherland whether he would allow reporters at his paper to use deception to go undercover and report on abuses, as Sutherland did for the paper years ago by posing as a mental patient.

“No, I would not do that story that way today,” Sutherland said. “The public has said that the ends don’t justify the means anymore.” He said the public’s attitude was fairly well captured by the jury’s finding in the Food Lion case. A jury ordered ABC to pay $5.5 million to the supermarket chain for the network’s deceptive newsgathering practices.

Bohrer said that much of the media’s problem comes from the fact that “the press has made people think it’s above the law.”

Paulson asked panelist Ray Winbush, director of Fisk University’s Race Relations Institute, what he thought of the poll finding that 76% of Americans said people should not be allowed to use racially offensive language in public. Winbush said that finding and others in the survey “reflect the utter confusion Americans have with respect to the First Amendment.”

Ray Winbush...
Ray Winbush

He said that Americans have adopted a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on racial issues and simply want to sweep discussions about race under the rug. Winbush said that efforts to regulate hate speech violate the First Amendment and are bad public policy. “I as a black man want to know what some of these white supremacists are thinking, what their views are,” he said.

Panelists also debated the hot-button First Amendment issue of whether public libraries should filter Internet content for their patrons. Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, said that filters cannot tell the difference between legal and illegal materials.

Weinberg said it is the job of parents, not the government, to protect children from harmful material online.

Hedy Weinberg...
Hedy Weinberg

Mayor Bredesen took a different approach to the filtering issue, saying that a government entity like a public library should not use taxpayer money to make pornography available through the Internet.

Bohrer cautioned that the issue of the constitutionality of public libraries installing filtering software on computers was complicated. He said he would make a distinction between minor and adult patrons. “I would place no restrictions on adult patrons,” he said, adding that “these filters don’t work.” However, he said that libraries should provide filtered access for children.

Sutherland said censoring content on the Internet is akin to removing a certain book from the library and that government officials need to realize that the Bill of Rights needs to be included in discussions about Internet filtering.

The panelists stressed that the First Amendment serves as a bulwark to many of our other freedoms.

“A lot of time attacks on the First Amendment underscore attacks on other fundamental, constitutional rights,” said Weinberg. “We need to quit scapegoating the First Amendment.”