Study reveals majority of Americans support free-speech rights

Thursday, September 3, 1998

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Panel at 'Publi...
Panel at 'Public Support for Free Speech in the United States.'
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -– Americans are more tolerant of the free-speech rights of homosexuals, atheists and communists than they were 25 years ago, but as many as 40% continue to believe that speech from such controversial groups should not be allowed, according to a study funded by the First Amendment Center.

The findings surprised participants in a program yesterday at The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center in Nashville.

“I think most people will see this study and say, 'Is it really true that Americans are more tolerant of this type of speech?' ” said Ray Winbush, a professor at Fisk University and director of the school's Race Relations Institute.

Winbush said that while tolerance for free speech may be greater now than it was in the early 1970s, so are the occurrences of hate crimes.

“What America is now saying is, 'We'll let you speak, but then we'll kill you,'” he said.

In their report, “Public Support for Free Speech in the United States,” Vanderbilt University sociology professors Dan Cornfield and Gary Jensen said they found that during the last 25 years, Americans have grown more supportive of the free-speech rights of gays, communists and atheists.

For the report, Cornfield and Jensen examined responses to free-speech related questions on the General Social Survey from 1972 to 1996. The survey, conducted every year by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, polls 1,500 Americans on their opinions on a variety of topics.

The professors said they focused on three recurring survey questions that asked the respondents about their willingness to allow a hypothetical homosexual, atheist and communist to make a speech in their community.

In their report, Jensen and Cornfield said they dismissed a direct question about free-speech rights because “people will tend to agree with abstract statements about rights but may not agree when they have antipathies toward some of the groups attempting to exercise those rights.”

Their survey found that the percentage of respondents who supported the free-speech rights of these groups rose from about 48% in 1972 to 60% in 1996. Support for free-speech rights for gays was the highest among the three groups, increasing from 62% in 1972 to 82% in 1996.

Cornfield and Jensen said they found a growing consensus among Americans to support free-speech rights of these groups. They said they found that respondents' political or religious affiliation, income, race, gender and region of residence gave little indication of their free-speech attitudes.

Abby Rubenfeld,...
Abby Rubenfeld, Ken Paulson and Ray Winbush discuss free-speech poll findings.
But the professors said support for free speech grew faster in the Southern states over the 25-year survey period than anywhere in the nation. Although a great difference in attitudes appeared in the survey in the 1970s, the report said that by the mid-1990s such differences “had all but disappeared.”

Although consensus on free speech seems to be growing, the professors noted that the respondents most supportive of free speech tended to be younger, more educated and not fundamentalist in their religious orientation.

“These findings suggest that individuals who matured after the Cold War, and whose educational and cultural experiences exposed them to diverse beliefs and attitudes, tended to develop the most tolerant free-speech attitudes,” the report said.

Cornfield and Jensen attributed much of the growing support of free-speech rights to the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the steady rise in the level of education in the United States between 1972 and 1996.

Despite the increase in free-speech tolerance, the professors noted that more than a third of Americans polled “continue to harbor intolerant free-speech attitudes.”

Abby Rubenfeld, a Nashville attorney specializing in family law and a gay-rights leader in Tennessee, said she found “it kind of extraordinary that 40 percent of Americans still believe a person shouldn't be able to speak” because of their sexual, religious or political orientation.”

Susan Wiltshire, a classics professor at Vanderbilt, suggested that the tolerance of Americans toward the speech of controversial groups may not have increased that much. She said many Americans playing word-association games would tie the word “Arab” with “terrorist.”

Wiltshire suggested that Americans have simply replaced the controversial groups of old — gays, communists and atheists — with new ones, such as Muslims, Japanese and Chinese.

“Who are our new demons?” she asked. “Perhaps we are ready to demonize Muslims because we ran out of communists?”