Some experts hopeful despite public’s First Amendment views

Thursday, July 13, 2000
Robert Corn-Revere

ARLINGTON, Va. — Three leading supporters of
individual freedoms said today that despite some fairly grim findings in a new
Freedom Forum survey on how people view the exercise of First Amendment rights,
they remain optimistic that citizens still hold dear the concepts underlying
those freedoms.

In a panel discussion for the Washington rollout of the First
Amendment Center’s State of
the First Amendment 2000 report, Juan Williams, a longtime Washington
journalist and talk radio host on National Public Radio, Nadine Strossen,
president of the American Civil Liberties Union, and First Amendment attorney
Robert Corn-Revere said the survey findings were a challenge rather than cause
for alarm.

State of the First Amendment
  • Full survey report
  • Survey shows public would
    restrict America’s freedoms
  • Some experts hopeful despite
    public’s First Amendment views
  • Editorial available
  • News release
  • Williams said he thought the survey showed “a distinction between the
    reaction to the ideal” and an individual’s personal opinion when asked some
    fairly specific questions about the First Amendment in practice. For example,
    he said, he would not consider it inconsistent for the public to support prayer
    in schools but also support the Supreme Court’s recent ruling that it would be
    unconstitutional to engage in organized prayer before a football game.

    Strossen said although some of the survey findings were “disturbing,”
    they were also a “challenge, and I do think the challenge is one that is met
    through education.” It should not be surprising, she said, that individuals can
    react adversely when asked about some specific instances where the First
    Amendment comes into play — displays of offensive art or speech, Internet
    pornography, violence on television and in music lyrics and on perceived press
    excesses, for example.

    But people’s views on such specific matters tend to be “fairly
    superficial,” she said, while the concepts underlying the First Amendment are
    more complex. If you take a little more time to explain the situation, she
    said, often individuals whose “first blush” reaction may be negative will come
    around to support the broader concepts. As a result, she said, the survey
    provides “a wonderful base for continued activism and education” of the

    “Yes, there’s a job for more education,” said Corn-Revere, but he
    added it was heartening that the survey still shows a majority in support of
    basic freedoms such as speech, press and other forms of expression.

    “We have a strong culture that supports freedom of expression,”
    Corn-Revere said. “The numbers tend to suggest that American instincts support
    free expression.”

    He said he considered the survey less a “national referendum” than a
    “national mood ring.”

    “If the respondents were federal judges, I’d worry,” Corn-Revere

    However, Charles Haynes, a senior scholar on religious freedom at the
    First Amendment Center, said he was not as sanguine as his colleagues over the
    findings on religion questions.

    He noted that the survey showed majorities support having teachers or
    school officials lead prayers in public schools, having prayers at school
    events such as football games if the majority votes for it, posting the Ten
    Commandments in public schools and using the Bible as a factual text in history
    or social studies classes.

    He likened the “broad streak of majoritarianism” in the responses to
    the religion questions to an old description of Puritanism: “Religious freedom
    for me but not for thee.”

    “The society is only as just and free as it protects the rights of the
    smallest majority in the least popular communities,” Haynes said.

    Haynes also said he was surprised that many Americans don’t seem to
    grasp the link between an individual’s right to practice the religion of his or
    her choice and the prohibition of an established government religion carried in
    the First Amendment.

    Although when asked, most individuals do not want the government
    dictating their religious practices, they don’t seem to recognize that when
    teachers lead prayers or school districts post certain scriptures and not
    others, that is government involvement in religion.

    “They don’t understand that these principles must go together to fuel
    religious freedom in this country,” Haynes said, and “the violation of that
    principle opens the floodgate” to any number of restraints on the free practice
    of religion.

    “I think history has shown that government corrupts religion.”

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