Poll finds we think we believe in free speech, yet are ready to regulate it

Wednesday, December 17, 1997

ACLU's Ann Bees...
Photo by Scott Maclay
ACLU's Ann Beeson says V-chips won't shield kids.
ARLINGTON, Va. — The First Amendment needs daily protection from subtle, complex threats, such as Internet content regulation and TV ratings, scholar Donna Demac told more than 100 guests at a conference Dec. 16 on the “State of the First Amendment.”

Demac, who recently completed a 130-page report of the same name, said she found “society is ambivalent” about free-expression rights guaranteed by the Constitution. [To order "State of the First Amendment," call 800/830-3733 and ask for publication no. 98-F01.]

“On the surface, things are peaceful,” Demac said. “There are no
heavy-handed tactics, such as the government shutting down
newspapers. But below the surface, some subtle actions by government and
citizens are
very troubling.”

Click the button to listen to archived web audio of the State of the First Amendment conference. Approximate length: 8 hours. RealAudio/Real Player and minimum 28.8 connection to the Internet recommended for best listening results.

First Amendment threats

During the conference, several legal experts, constitutional scholars
and First Amendment advocates cited examples of those actions:

  • Marjorie Heins, American Civil Liberties Union:
    “Congress is using scientific 'proof' that media violence causes
    aggression” to push networks into establishing the TV ratings system
    and requiring that televisions have V-chips,” she said. “Congress is
    interested in regulating offensive content or any ideas it does not
  • Ronald K.L. Collins, constitutional scholar:
    The definition of “hate speech” will determine whether any
    legislation designed to prevent it threatens the First Amendment,
    Collins said.
    “There's no First Amendment doctrine (on hate speech). Is the
    expression speech or conduct? Does the legislation target speech that is
    impermissible or is the concern with the secondary effects of speech?
    Does it fall
    into the traditional exceptions (to freedom of speech) such as libel or
    obscenity? Does it constitute a criminal threat?”
  • Joan Bertin, National Coalition Against Censorship:
    Parents, school boards and public officials are citing their concern
    over their children's welfare to try to ban artistic expressions such as
    film and art, Bertin said. Old anti-child-pornography laws aimed to
    protect minors who would be harmed in the production of the pornographic
    material. But “Congress isn't concerned with that anymore. They're
    about the image itself and its effect on the viewer. It's the idea that
    you can control the images, you can control the action of the individual
    who might be viewing them.”

Do Internet sex sites hurt children?

Protecting children from sexually explicit material, especially on
the Internet, emerged as one of the most contentious issues at
the conference. Some First Amendment advocates said they were alarmed
at measures Congress and parents have proposed for shielding minors
from offensive or explicit content.

Computer V-chips and ratings systems won't protect kids, Ann Beeson
of the ACLU said. Instead, these devices will filter out important
educational material, she said, including information on homosexuality,
birth control, art
and other issues.

“There is a paranoia about kids' finding sexually explicit material
and also about them being targeted by pedophiles on the Internet,”
said. “These policies, instead of protecting them, will have the effect
excluding kids from information they need to know.”

But parents' fears shouldn't be discounted, said Harvey Zuckerman of
Catholic University in Washington, D.C. “Parents can't be with their
children all day to monitor their use of the Internet,” he said. “If
government has no role, what can parents do?”

From the audience, Bertin replied, “I have two children who surf the
Net, and we have
discussions about it. [Trying to keep Internet content from children]
is an overreaction to something that, in the scheme of things, is a
very small threat to children.”

The trashman's triumph

Keynote speaker Keen Umbehr told the audience that he lost his job,
his community and even family and friends during his First Amendment
battle with the county commission in Wabaunsee County, Kansas.

Umbehr, who had a contract to haul the county's trash, also wrote
editorials for the local newspaper, often alleging violations of law
and other misconduct by the county commission. “What I wrote was true,
and I could back it up,” Umbehr said. “I believed that my constitutional
rights were live and real, waiting to be activated. I felt that writing
articles and speaking out about the government not only was my right, it
my duty to speak the truth, regardless of the fact that my whole
was based on that county contract.”

The county terminated his contract in retaliation for his articles.
Umbehr sued, and the case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In
June 1996 the court upheld Umbehr's free-speech rights.

“The troops on the front lines of the First Amendment fight
desperately need some help,” Umbehr told the audience of attorneys,
scholars and
experts. “You have the knowledge in here, and they need it out

Six challenges for First Amendment advocates

Constitutional lawyer Robert Peck challenged his fellow First
Amendment supporters to leave the conference with six goals:

    Recapture the notion that religious freedom is a value of the
    first rank, not an adjunct to other constitutional values.

    Examine the interplay between expressive rights of religious
    speech and the “separationist strands” of the Establishment Clause.

    Resist a child-protection exception to free speech, while
    providing educational tools to help parents.

    Fight labeling of speech by government or private industry.

    Put more effort into expanding opportunities for access to the
    platforms for free speech.

    Develop a fuller and more widespread cultural appreciation for
    freedom in the practical ways it is needed but often unrecognized. “If
    freedom of the mind, freedom of conscience, freedom of inquiry and
    freedom of
    ideas is to survive and remain meaningful, it must be a guiding
    principle –
    not just in law but in spirit.”

    Poll results

    In addition to the “State of the First Amendment” report, The Freedom
    Forum released a new poll on the public's attitudes toward the First
    Amendment. The poll finds strong support for the amendment, but also
    shows that
    many people accept the idea of limitations in areas such as Internet
    indecency and on language offensive to minority groups. [For more
    on the survey, call Kenneth Dautrich, 860/486-2579,