Time, healing bring renewed perspective on the First Amendment

Thursday, July 31, 2003

Two years after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., our nation appears to have caught its breath — and regained some perspective.

Those horrific assaults took a tremendous toll, in lives as well as on our collective psyche. How could we prevent this kind of attack from happening again? Did we need to limit liberties in the interest of security? Were we too free to be truly safe?

That sense of freedom as an obstacle to the war on terrorism was reflected last year in our annual survey gauging public support for First Amendment freedoms. For the first time in our polling, 49% of respondents said they believed the First Amendment gives us too much freedom.

While reaction to fear is largely reflexive, the passage of time allows us to be reflective. The 2003 State of the First Amendment survey — conducted in collaboration with American Journalism Review — suggested that public support for First Amendment freedoms may be returning to pre-9/11 levels. About 61% of respondents indicated overall support for First Amendment freedoms, while 34% said First Amendment freedoms go too far.

While First Amendment advocates certainly can’t regard it as a victory that one-third of Americans have misgivings about these fundamental freedoms, there are other signs that most Americans continue to embrace freedom of speech and religion. While respondents displayed less enthusiasm for freedom of the press, they did give high marks to the news media for their work during the war in Iraq.

Among the key findings:

  • The least popular First Amendment right continued to be freedom of the press — 46% said the press in America has too much freedom to do what it wants, up from 42% last year.
  • Sixty-five percent of those surveyed said they favor the policy of embedding U.S. journalists in individual combat units, and 68% said the news media did an excellent or good job in covering the war.
  • Despite the positive perception of war coverage, more than two out of three surveyed said the government should be able to review in advance journalists’ reports directly from military combat zones.
  • Americans indicated a hunger for more information about the war on terrorism. Forty-eight percent of those surveyed said they believed that Americans have too little information about the federal government’s efforts to combat terrorism.
  • When asked whether they believe the media have too much freedom to publish or whether there’s too much government censorship, response was split: 43% said there’s too much media freedom, and 38% said there’s too much government censorship.

The war in Iraq put protests back on newspaper front pages and gave a number of Americans second thoughts about dissent. The war also fueled a new effort to rewrite the Constitution to ban burning of the American flag. While a majority of respondents said they supported protest rights, a significant percentage favored limits:

  • Almost one-third of those surveyed said that individuals should not be allowed to protest in public against an American war during the period of active combat.
  • One in three respondents said that public school officials should be allowed to prohibit high school students from expressing their opinions about the war on school property. And roughly one in two said public schools should be allowed to ban armbands or other symbolic opposition to the war during a period of combat.
  • Perhaps echoing public sentiment concerning comments by the Dixie Chicks, 39% of those surveyed said they would be less likely to buy a CD from a musician who has made controversial political remarks in public that differ from their own views.
  • About 55% of those surveyed opposed a constitutional amendment to ban flag-burning, up from 51% in 2002.

Last year, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the recitation in public schools of the phrase, “one nation under God” during the Pledge of Allegiance violated the U.S. Constitution. The outcry was immediate and angry. The 2003 State of the First Amendment survey found that most respondents were not concerned about the separation of church and state. In fact, a majority seemed comfortable with intermingling religious references with government business:

  • Almost seven in 10 said that the public school recitation of the phrase “one nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance does not violate the separation of church and state.
  • About 62% of those surveyed said government officials should be allowed to post the Ten Commandments inside government buildings. Almost eight in 10 said the government’s use of the phrase “In God We Trust” on U.S. money does not violate the principle of the separation of church and state.
  • About 60% said they favored allowing the government to give money to religious institutions to help run drug-abuse prevention programs, even if the institutions included a religious message in their program.

Do these responses reflect a trust in government not to go beyond symbolic references to faith? Or do the results reflect a majority who are receptive to seeing their own beliefs cited on government walls and in ceremonial references?

The answers may lie in how Americans view God in the context of government activities. Most of those surveyed regarded government references to God as civic rather than spiritual.

About 73% of those surveyed said the phrase “one nation under God” was “primarily a statement related to the American political tradition.” Fewer than 20% said they thought this reference to God was “primarily a religious statement.”

Another area spurring fierce debate over the last year has been the Federal Communications Commission’s move to loosen media-ownership restrictions.

The public’s unease with extensive media ownership by large corporations and conglomerates was reflected in the survey. The majority of respondents said the quality of news reporting has deteriorated and opposed the removal of limits on how many media outlets may be owned by a single company:

  • Fifty-two percent of those surveyed said media ownership by fewer corporations has meant a decreased number of viewpoints available to the public. Fifty-three percent said the quality of information also has suffered.
  • Fifty-four percent said they favor maintaining federal limits on how many radio, television and newspaper outlets may be owned by a single company, but one in two said they opposed any increased regulation.
  • Almost eight Americans in 10 said owners exert substantial influence over news organizations’ newsgathering and reporting decisions. Only 4% said they believed there is no tampering with story selection or play.

Overall, the 2003 State of the First Amendment survey results suggest some challenges for America’s news media.

While most respondents gave the press high marks for Iraq war coverage and said they count on the news media to provide more information about the war on terrorism, they also said the press has too much freedom and indicated suspicion of those who own the nation’s newspapers and broadcast stations.

Fortunately, Americans also recognize responsible and responsive news coverage when they see it. For all of the skepticism about news media ownership and excesses, the nation’s journalists remain uniquely positioned to win support for a free press — and the First Amendment as a whole — by living up to the watchdog role envisioned by the founding fathers.

At a time when many remain tempted to roll back civil liberties in the name of security, a free press plays a crucial role.

The nation’s news media truly honor the First Amendment when they ask the tough questions, fight to keep the public’s business public and provide the kind of thorough and balanced reporting that is the lifeblood of a democracy.

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