Survey shows public would restrict America’s freedoms

Thursday, June 29, 2000

Ken Paulson

NEW YORK — The home of the brave would become the land of the not-so-free if the latest public opinions were to prevail.

A majority of Americans would restrict public speech that is offensive to racial or religious groups and would ban art shows that offend some members of a community. At the same time, they would allow prayers at school-sponsored events and let schools post the Ten Commandments in classrooms. They would applaud government involvement in rating TV entertainment shows, and they would ban TV networks from projecting election winners while the polls were still open.

These are some of the significant findings of the 2000 State of the First Amendment survey, released today at a press conference at 580 Madison Ave., the newly opened New York office of the First Amendment Center.

“Today, the First Amendment is very much in play,” said Kenneth Paulson, executive director of the First Amendment Center. “The 45 words have gone unchanged since they were written by James Madison more than 200 years ago. Unchanged but not unchallenged.”

The latest survey, he added, shows “that while some First Amendment freedoms clearly have enthusiastic public support, others clearly are at risk.”

According to the survey, which examines public attitudes toward freedom of speech, press, religion and the rights to assembly and petition:

81% of those surveyed agreed that, if the majority favors it, prayer at a high school graduation is OK.

64% agreed students should be allowed to lead prayers at school-sponsored events.

61% would let school officials post the Ten Commandments.

56% favored using the Bible as a factual text in history or social studies.

67% feel public remarks offensive to racial groups should not be allowed.

53% feel public speech offensive to religious groups should not be allowed.

51% said art offensive to some in a community should not be placed in a public place.

Another 40% said musicians shouldn't sing offensive songs in public.

Larry McGill

Freedom of the press was far less popular than freedom of religion or freedom of speech. A majority, 51%, of Americans thinks “the press in America has too much freedom.” In last year's survey, slightly more Americans, 53%, said the media had too much freedom.

The high school press also is held to the same standards, according to those polled: 55% think high school students should get school authorities' approval for controversial stories.

And while it would seem good news that only 20% think government should be allowed to approve what newspapers publish, Larry McGill, director of research for the First Amendment Center, pointed out the down side.

“When you think about the fact that one in five people feels that newspapers shouldn't be allowed to publish without government approval, you have to worry a little bit about that kind of phenomenon,” said McGill, who designed the survey.

State of the First Amendment 2000

  • Full survey report
  • Survey shows public would restrict America's freedoms
  • Some experts hopeful despite public's First Amendment views
  • Editorial available
  • News release

  • Regarding television, 67% of those polled agreed that broadcasters should be allowed to televise U.S. Supreme Court proceedings, but 70% believe TV networks should not project election winners until all the polls close.

    And among all media, almost three-quarters of the public believe violence in the media contributes at least somewhat to violence in real life. Eighty-three percent think TV violence contributes the most to real-life violence; 74% think video games do the same; and 72% place some blame on music lyrics.

    Campaign-finance spending also received a fairly high disapproval rating.

    “Most people favor government restrictions on campaign contributions even as they agree that campaign contributions are a legitimate form of free speech,” McGill said.

    Sixty-eight percent favored restrictions on contributions from private corporations or unions; 57% favored restrictions from private individuals; and 53% favored restrictions on political candidates giving to their own campaigns.

    The survey also found:

    Three-quarters of the country would allow material on the Internet to have the same First Amendment protection as books and newspapers. The survey found that public access to the Internet has risen dramatically, from 56% a year ago to 68% today.

    But a majority, 58%, would severely restrict Internet content dealing with bomb-making information and sexually explicit material. And one-third believes that public libraries should block everyone's access to potentially offensive Web sites.

    The country remains split on the issue of a flag-burning amendment, but for the first time, a majority (51%) opposes it. Even so, 74% think flag burning as a political expression is wrong.

    37% of those polled couldn't name even one of the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment.

    The telephone survey of 1,015 respondents was conducted for the First Amendment Center between April 13 and April 26, 2000, by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 points.

    In his introductory remarks, Paulson noted that the First Amendment Center's new office was opened in New York because “there is no place on the planet more appropriate for the study and promotion of First Amendment freedoms. New York is the news capital of the world, it is the arts capital of the world, and it is clearly the free-expression capital of the world.

    “And,” he added, “it is just a coincidence that we're opening these offices on the day John Rocker returns.”

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