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SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 26, 2006
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Most Americans grateful for the First Amendment

By Charles C. Haynes

With so much violent conflict abroad and bitter division at home, here’s some good news to be thankful for this week: American support for the First Amendment appears to be on the rise.

At least that’s my optimistic reading of the latest State of the First Amendment survey just released by the First Amendment Center.

Consider that four years ago — in the aftermath of 9/11 — almost half of the American people (49 percent) agreed that “the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees.” But each year since then, the numbers have dropped. Today, only 18 percent of us think the First Amendment goes too far.

As good as that sounds (to my First Amendment ears), the big question is how general support for the First Amendment translates into a willingness to protect speech that many people don’t want to hear.

Should musicians, for example, be allowed to sing songs with lyrics that others might find offensive? Sixty-three percent say they should, up from 56 percent last year.

What about the far more sensitive topic of religion: Should people be allowed to say things in public that might be offensive to religious groups? According to the survey, 55 percent agree that people have that right, up from 48 percent in 2005.

Only when it comes to race does the “right to offend” fail to get a majority. Forty-two percent agree that people should be allowed to say things in public that might be offensive to racial groups, while 55 percent disagree.

It’s worth noting, however, that when the question about race was first asked in 1997, only 23 percent of respondents would allow speech that might be racially offensive, while 75 percent would not allow it. That suggests Americans may be moving away from “political correctness” and toward robust protection for free speech.

Americans also value a free press, but with reservations. Although 47 percent believe the press has the right amount of freedom (and 10 percent think the press should have more), a significant 40 percent say that the press has “too much freedom.”

History tells us that people are more willing to support restrictions on the press during a national crisis. That’s why it’s somewhat heartening to learn that 66 percent of Americans agree that newspapers should be allowed to publish stories that criticize the government, even during wartime. Of course, the fact that 31 percent of us would muzzle the press in a time of war is no cause for celebration.

A majority also would allow the press to publish classified information, although not without conditions. When asked about whether newspapers should be allowed to publish “sensitive and classified government information,” only 12 percent give an unqualified “yes.” Another 51 percent support newspapers’ publishing the information, but only when “it exposes government wrongdoing.” But fully 35 percent of us would not allow it at all.

On the subject of voluntary restraints, most people (75 percent) want newspapers to honor government requests to withhold publishing information that “might hurt efforts to win the war on terrorism.”

But if the press followed this advice and self-censored everything the government thinks “might” hurt the fight against terrorism, our morning paper would be a quick read indeed. It’s all too easy for politicians to confuse what hurts the nation with what hurts their reputations.

Overall, the numbers are fairly good for the First Amendment. Am I troubled by the hard-core third of Americans who would allow the government to restrict freedom of expression? Of course.

But at a time when fear is the great enemy of freedom, I’m happy to raise a glass two-thirds full.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org.

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