Public eases up on press a little

Monday, November 15, 1999

By Beverly Kees

SAN FRANCISCO — Americans support free speech in the abstract, but “everybody is interested in taking a little slice out of the First Amendment when it comes to a particular kind of speech,” said Larry McGill, director of research, Media Studies Center, today at the Pacific Coast Center.

McGill discussed results of a September survey of 1,001 adults about the First Amendment. It was a follow-up to a survey in March 1999 that showed 53% of Americans believed that the press “has too much freedom to do what it wants.” The good news was that the figure in September declined to 42% who felt the press has too much freedom.

The decline likely came with greater distance from the President Clinton-Monica Lewinsky story, McGill speculated.

The Freedom Forum/University of Connecticut survey asked about specific First Amendment issues:

“When you ask people, ‘Should musicians be allowed to sing songs with words that others find offensive?’ all of a sudden you find about a quarter of the country thinks that musicians who should not be allowed to sing songs with words that others find offensive and another 15 percent who mildly disagree with that.”

And that was the form of speech most tolerated, McGill said. “The findings only get a little more dire.”

A third of the country strongly disagrees that people should be allowed to display in a public place art that has content that might be offensive to others, he said, and almost half strongly disagree that school students should be allowed to wear T-shirts with messages or pictures that others might find offensive.

The “strongly disagrees” grow “when it comes to whether or not people should be allowed to use words in public that might be offensive to racial groups — six out of 10 strongly disagree and another 16 percent mildly disagree. That’s an overwhelmingly level of disagreement.

“But the strongest level of disagreement is with respect to flag-burning,” McGill said. “Three-quarters of the country strongly disagrees that people should be allowed to burn or deface the American flag as a political statement.”

John Seigenthaler, founder of the First Amendment Center, who moderated the ensuing panel, took on with thespian flair several roles of people who want to alter the First Amendment.

To Bruce B. Brugmann, editor and publisher of the alternative weekly, The San Francisco Bay Guardian: “What gives you … the right to editorially endorse candidates? What makes you so smart that you think you ought to be telling me how to vote in an election? … Why don’t you just give us the facts, sir, and let us make up our own minds?”

Newspapers should endorse candidates, Brugmann said. “The problem is that most of the press now is Republican, conservative. They endorse the same old candidates in the same old way with the same old reasons. So it’s even more important for papers like The Guardian to endorse.”

And, “the facts aren’t enough,” Brugmann said. “The facts have to be in context, they have to be in background. And in terms of endorsements, just in San Francisco, most of the Democratic clubs are controlled by (Mayor) Willie Brown and [a political] machine. Hell, they even came out against the sunshine initiative. So if the papers don’t endorse — and radio and TV don’t endorse, they’re full of ads — nobody else is going to do it.”

Seigenthaler challenged him: “So you don’t think I’m smart enough to make up my own mind?”

“No, I don’t, not at all,” Brugmann said. “I don’t think you’re smart enough unless you’ve got the right information, the background, the context, the voting record, the campaign contributions — all this kind of information that’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, for citizens to get on their own.”

“But I know your newspaper has a liberal bent,” said the liberal Seigenthaler, still in character. “It makes me want to throw up.”

“Tough,” Brugmann replied to laughter from the audience.

Seigenthaler turned to Dorothy Ehrlich, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California: “Dorothy, I’ve got grandchildren and I think that my grandchildren, who go to public schools, ought to be able to find out about Jesus Christ and pray to Jesus Christ. You block that every time someone starts an initiative to get prayer in public schools and the Ten Commandments in public places.”

People can pray any time they want to, there are other opportunities besides school for church teaching, and in a diverse community, not everyone will be saying the same prayer, Ehrlich said.

So let everyone pray — take turns each day, Seigenthaler suggested.

“Some people are still going to feel like outsiders,” she said. “They’re not going to feel welcome. And the school classroom is not the place for that. Which is not to say they can’t talk about religion, or learn about religion, but the notion of praying is something that has to be done outside of that public school classroom.”

How about the Ten Commandments? Seigenthaler asked. “Those are good rules. Anybody can live their lives by the 10 Commandments. … Jews like the Ten Commandments and Christians like the Ten Commandments and that covers most of us in this country.”

“You’re not taking into account those who are nonbelievers,” Ehrlich said. “They have a right to be nonbelievers. … They have a right to have their nonbelief protected as well. Particularly in a courtroom where they are supposed to be able to come and receive equal justice and to be treated with equal dignity, no matter what their beliefs.”

Seigenthaler then asked Emil Guillermo, host and executive producer of public radio’s “NCM: New California Media,” whether he thought people should have the right to say things “that insult African-Americans or Hispanic Americans or anybody?” For example, using the word “nigger.”

“I’ve used the word ‘nigger’ when we talked about Mark Furman’s testimony in the O.J. Simpson case, on talk radio, in columns that I wrote,” Guillermo said. “What I think is offensive is using the phrase ‘the N word,’ when we all know what the N word is. … What I find offensive is the use of a politically correct euphemism in order to avoid saying ‘nigger.’ When ‘nigger’ is relevant, you should be able to say it. That’s the First Amendment.”

Should Klansmen be allowed to walk down the street shouting racial epithets? Seigenthaler asked.

“I think they should. I’m an absolutist when it comes to the First Amendment. What’s great about the First Amendment is that it guarantees more speech, and you can’t go wrong with more speech. More speech is good speech. When you start to limit speech, that’s when you start getting into problem areas,” said the broadcaster.

Guillermo gave an example in which The Washington Post wrote a story about the man who won the Democratic primary for mayor in Baltimore, a majority-black city. The headline was ”White man elected.”

“It caused an uproar in journalism. I said it’s a sad day when you can’t call a white man a white man.”

“In the case of Asian-Americans, I remember the year they were looking for the alleged killer of Gianni Versace. They said we’re looking for a white man. Now everyone knew in the Filipino-American community that Andrew Cunanan was not white, he was Filipino. But you never saw Cunanan referred to as Filipino. On all the FBI wanted posters, it said we’re looking for a white man. This could possibly be why they took several days to find this guy. They didn’t know what they were looking for.”

“I think we’re being a little too sensitive to what other people might say. I think the audience is big enough to accept the truth.”

Paul McMasters, the Freedom Forum’s First Amendment ombudsman, faced Seigenthaler-as-World War II-veteran, angered by people who want to burn the flag: “People died to protect that flag. The flag was their symbol. Now there are people who want to desecrate it, burn it, stomp on it, spit on it. I just don’t think you ought to be doing this. Why shouldn’t we punish flag-burners?”

“I can’t think of much in the way of speech that would offend me more than to see a flag burned,” McMasters said. However, “political dissent is probably the most important speech that’s guaranteed by the First Amendment. And I can’t think of any more powerful political dissent than to take a revered symbol and to raise your voice above the democratic din by disrespecting it as you feel that you have been disrespected over the values that you hold dear. If there were only one flag, I’d be in there advocating for the amendment, too, but there are all sorts of flags. And when it comes down to it, it is just a piece of cloth. … When it represents the United States, you can destroy one, but you can’t destroy them all.

“When you change the First Amendment,” McMasters continued, “you’ve destroyed the Bill of Rights as we have held it dear for 200 years. … The First Amendment was written to protect the minority view, the individual view, the fringe speech, the speech of the radical, the revolutionary and even the rascal. Your wanting to take the majority, the clout and the money that comes with it and persuade the Congress of the United States to change our most basic contract between citizens and the government — I think that’s wrong.”

“I just want a little old amendment that protects my flag,” Seigenthaler said. “You can keep all the rest of it. You can let him be free and let her do what she wants to about school prayer and let him shout from the rooftop, but I just want a little old amendment to protect my flag.”

“And the people who want campaign-finance reform just want a little old amendment for them,” McMasters replied. “And the people who want prayer in school just want a little old amendment. Pretty soon those little old amendments have made the First Amendment a footnote to our Constitution.”

In introducing the program, Ken Paulson, executive director of the First Amendment Center, said the First Amendment had remained unchanged in its 208 years.

“But unchanged doesn’t mean unchallenged,” Paulson added.