State of the First Amendment: A survey of public attitudes

Tuesday, July 20, 1999

State of the First Amendment
1999 Survey
  • Overview
  • Foreword
  • Analysis
  • Questionnaire
  • Methodology
  • News advisory

  • Kenneth A. Paulson is executive director of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University and senior vice president/publications for The Freedom Forum

    Almost 30 times a year, First Amendment Center Founder John Seigenthaler and I have the opportunity to meet with newspaper professionals attending the American Press Institute in Reston, Va.

    John and I very much enjoy the give and take of these spirited sessions as we explore the First Amendment with editors, publishers, advertising directors, circulation executives and marketing specialists. At the close of each session, we spend a few minutes talking about the public’s perception of the First Amendment.

    Without exception, each API group comes away surprised that the public holds our First Amendment freedoms in considerably lower regard than do media professionals. The newspaper executives understand, of course, that the press is often under attack, but they are surprised to learn that almost a third of Americans believe the First Amendment goes too far in protecting free expression.

    Those API discussions-and the public’s need for an ongoing understanding of the fragility of our most fundamental freedoms-have inspired this survey, which will be conducted annually. This project builds on a 1997 study of the state of the First Amendment, which established an initial baseline for comparisons drawn here.

    The current survey results are based on telephone interviews conducted by The Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut from Feb. 26 – March 24, 1999. The sampling was conducted after 13 months of media coverage of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, but before the shooting tragedy in Littleton, Colo.

    As you’ll see in the analysis by First Amendment Ombudsman Paul McMasters, the public’s perception of the value of various First Amendment freedoms appears tied to a sense of how responsibly those freedoms are exercised today.

    At the First Amendment Center, we strive to help
    preserve First Amendment freedoms by providing information and education. It’s our belief that the more Americans know about the First Amendment and its role in a free society, the more supportive they will be of the freedoms it ensures.

    It is our hope that this annual survey will both raise awareness of and enhance appreciation for our most fundamental freedoms.