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    What America Thinks
    Free Speech Still
    Gets Our Vote

    By Richard Morin
    Washington Post Polling Director
    Monday, December 14, 1998

    The high school senior behind the video camera poked her head up and raised her hand. Why exactly, she asked the guest speaker, is it important to defend the rights of people who do, say, create or think ghastly things? Why not ban nude magazines, prevent atheists or racial bigots from speaking in public, or prevent music videos featuring sex, drugs and misogyny from appearing on television?

    I was the visiting lecturer. My inquisitor was a student at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, Va. She and other senior government students were spending the day thinking about the Bill of Rights shortly before its 207th birthday. And they were asking good, tough, troublesome questions – precisely the same ones that have bedeviled the country since the Bill of Rights was ratified on Dec. 15, 1791.

    And they're questions that public opinion polling can answer. Last year, political scientist Kenneth Dautrich of the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut directed a survey of public attitudes toward the First Amendment. Some results were disturbing, suggesting that many Americans seemed to be willing to amend the amendments to restrict specific types of speech. (More on this later.)

    But Dautrich's research team discovered something else. While Americans may be troubled by many kinds of speech and behavior, "the vast majority of Americans believe that it is dangerous for the government to put limits on certain rights because it then is easier for the government to put limits on more rights," Dautrich wrote.

    More than nine in 10 respondents – 93 percent – agreed that "it's dangerous to restrict freedom of speech because restricting the freedom of one person could lead to restrictions on everybody." Remarkably, 59 percent of those interviewed said they "strongly agreed" with the statement – unequivocal evidence of strong sentiment against limiting free speech.

    An even larger majority agreed that it would be dangerous to restrict "freedom of religion because restrictions on one type of religious activity could lead to restrictions on others" – including 63 percent who strongly agreed with that sentiment.

    Clearly, Americans understand and appear to accept what constitutional lawyers call the "slippery slope" argument: Limiting any rights opens the door to further retrenchment. In fact, Dautrich tested this argument directly, asking survey respondents how much they agreed or disagreed with the following statement: "Once the government starts limiting certain rights, it becomes easier for it to put limits on more rights."

    Significantly, 94 percent agreed with the statement; two in three strongly agreed. "Americans largely appreciate their First Amendment rights and some are willing to extend them to situations they personally might disagree with," Dautrich wrote. "Many Americans also appreciate the 'slippery slope' argument and recognize the danger of government restrictions on rights."

    That's good news. And surprising news. Much past polling on the Bill of Rights and specifically the First Amendment is so depressing that "it is apparent that free expression is in very big trouble," Robert O. Wyatt of Middle Tennessee State University wrote in 1991 after he completed a survey of public attitudes toward the First Amendment.

    Actually, that's an old story. In 1938, the American Institute of Public Opinion surveyed a national sample of American adults. The institute asked respondents whether they believed in free speech or not, and of course 96 percent said they did.

    But in subsequent questions, it became uncomfortably clear that Americans would place many limits on free speech. Fewer than four in 10 – 38 percent – said they would allow "radicals" to meet and speak. Even fewer would grant those rights to Communists or fascists.

    Likewise, during the height of the Red Scare in the 1950s, Harvard sociologist Samuel Stouffer conducted a national poll to measure support for free speech. Two-thirds said a Communist should not be allowed to speak. And nearly as many, 60 percent, said an atheist should not be allowed to speak.

    Today, we're more tolerant. The General Social Survey conducted by the National Research Center at the University of Chicago finds that now only about one in five Americans would prevent an atheist from speaking. And fewer than a third would stop a Communist (remember those?) from speaking.

    But many Americans still want to limit some kinds of unpopular speech. Wyatt's survey for the American Society of Newspaper Editors found that half would not protect the speech of someone who advocated homosexual acts, and six in 10 would not protect recordings about "sex, drugs and cults." (Kids, there goes your MTV.) Four in 10 would prohibit selling magazines that featured nudes; a third would not protect "dancing in a sexually suggestive manner." (There goes your senior prom.)

    Large numbers of Americans also would place limits on freedom of the press. While half of those interviewed last year by Dautrich's research team say the press has about the right amount of freedom, nearly four in 10 – 38 percent – said they have too much. Nearly three in 10 disagree that newspapers should be allowed to endorse or criticize political candidates, Dautrich reported. More than four in 10 say court trials should not be broadcast.

    What bothers Americans most about the media? Reporters and pollsters should take note, because both Dautrich's and Wyatt's studies agree: When pitted against a range of journalistic practices, from the use of hidden cameras to reporting government secrets, the thing that offended most Americans was television networks projecting election winners before the polls closed.

    Richard Morin is director of polling for The Washington Post. "What Americans Think" appears Mondays in The Washington Post National Weekly Edition. Morin can be reached at morinr@clark.net .

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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