Where Americans stand on freedom
There was a time in this country’s history when free speech was truly dangerous.
Consider the courage of the original signers of the Declaration of Independence. By subscribing to such a revolutionary document, they knew they were putting their lives and their honor at risk. And in fact, five were captured and tortured by the British as traitors; nine died in the War of Independence; and at least 12 of the 56 had their homes destroyed.
They knew the risks. Congress didn’t distribute signed copies of the Declaration until January 18, 1777, giving the signers some cover until after Continental army victories at Trenton and Princeton.
Americans today rarely see free speech in a heroic light. In fact, the First Amendment Center’s new State of the First Amendment Survey suggests we are a nation that sometimes loses sight of its most fundamental freedoms.
Respondents to the survey, which was conducted this spring by the University of Connecticut’s Center for Survey Research & Analysis, embrace the ideals of the First Amendment but have reservations about the reality.
- Fifty-one percent said the press has too much freedom to do what it wants. A year ago, a similar number, 53%, also said the news media had excessive freedom.
- Fifty-one percent said art should not be placed in public places if it may offend some members of the community.
- Forty percent said musicians should not be allowed to sing offensive songs in public.
- Sixty-seven percent said that public remarks offensive to racial groups should not be allowed; 36% would support a law that banned such speech.
- Fifty-three percent said that public speech that offends members of a religious group should not be allowed.
- Fifty-four percent think the government should be involved in rating entertainment programs that are shown on television.
- Three-quarters of the respondents believe that violence on television and in video games and music lyrics contributes to violence in real life. Eighty-three percent think violence on television contributes to violence in real life; 74% think violent video games do the same, and 72% think violent music lyrics are to blame.
One of the striking things about the survey is the significant percentage of Americans who are ready to ban expression that currently is protected by the Constitution.
Most surprising is the finding that Americans are apparently becoming reluctant to offend. The issue stretches far beyond being a simple matter of political correctness. It’s about embracing civility at the cost of freedom.
Thomas Jefferson and the rest of the co-signers of the Declaration of Independence probably never would have envisioned the likes of today’s popular culture.
But while the appeal of Marilyn Manson, Quentin Tarantino and “South Park” probably would have escaped them, those original American rebels clearly understood what freedom means.
They recognized that the right to express unpopular opinions and provocative ideas is the very cornerstone of our democracy.
As we again celebrate our nation’s birth, there is no better time to remember the founders’ mission — or their message.
Note to editors: About the First Amendment Center
The First Amendment Center works to preserve and protect First Amendment freedoms through information and education. The center serves as a forum for the study and exploration of free expression issues, including freedom of speech, of the press and of religion, the right to assemble and to petition the government. The center, with offices at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., and in New York City and Arlington, Va., is an operating program of The Freedom Forum and is affiliated with the Newseum, The Freedom Forum’s interactive museum of news. The Freedom Forum is a nonpartisan, international foundation dedicated to free press, free speech and free spirit for all people.