“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for redress of grievances.”
— First Amendment, U.S. Constitution
The First Amendment, which guarantees such rights as free speech, free press, free exercise of religion and freedom of assembly, is considered a bedrock principle of America. While Americans are generally supportive of First Amendment rights in principle, opinions become somewhat inconsistent depending upon the circumstances.
A recent public opinion survey called the 2003 State of the First Amendment conducted by the First Amendment Center found that Americans have mixed views on how the freedoms in the First Amendment should be applied. The poll based on 1,000 interviews was conducted between June 3 and June 15.
Overall, about 60 percent of respondents believe the First Amendment doesn’t go “too far in the rights it guarantees,” but 34 percent believe that it does.
When the five freedoms of the First Amendment are separated, views differ. For instance, respondents were nearly evenly split on whether the press has too much freedom or about the right amount. Even 28 percent would support government approval of newspaper stories before they’re published, a frightening thought.
Most respondents (58 percent) don’t believe the media’s performance during the war on terrorism in asking government officials for information had been too aggressive. Sixty-eight percent said the media had done an excellent or good job covering the war in Iraq and two-thirds believed the government should “review in advance” what journalists report from combat zones.
The freedom to express unpopular views was upheld by 95 percent — 74 percent strongly agree with that right — but Americans are less enthusiastic of speech that some might consider “offensive.”
Respondents were evenly split on whether people should be “allowed” to say things in public that might offend religious groups. They were more adamant against the right to express racially insensitive speech. It wasn’t clear from the survey what action would be recommended to control “offensive” speech.
When it comes to freedom of religion, 66 percent believe the “amount” of freedom is about right. They don’t see a separation of church and state issue, involving the phrase “one nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance — despite a ruling to the contrary by a liberal federal court in California — because 73 percent view the phrase as a statement of “political tradition” and not faith. Should the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings? Sixty-two percent said yes.
If the survey says anything, it’s that views on our First Amendment freedoms may be good in theory, but in practice, we’re not always certain. The fact that respondents were willing to sacrifice freedom of speech because certain views might be offensive to groups invites a slippery slope where our rights are relegated to the whims of likability.
The true test of America’s freedoms lies not in support of opinions we favor, but in recognizing the rights of others to express views we oppose. Otherwise, America’s freedoms are reduced from being bedrock principles to mere interesting historic concepts made of sand.