Press Freedom in Deep Trouble: Survey Finds Support for Free Speech Protections So Weak That the First Amendment Would Fail a Ratification Vote If Taken Today

By Garneau, George | Editor & Publisher, April 20, 1991 | Go to article overview

Press Freedom in Deep Trouble: Survey Finds Support for Free Speech Protections So Weak That the First Amendment Would Fail a Ratification Vote If Taken Today


Garneau, George, Editor & Publisher


Press freedom in deep trouble

Press freedom is in deep trouble - not in the courts but in the court of public opinion, concludes a new study.

It also found that Americans love freedom of speech - except if you say something they don't like.

The study found support for free speech protections was so weak that the First Amendment would fail a ratification vote if it were taken today.

It found that more than two-thirds of voters do not support unqualified press freedom. Two out of three citizens favor limits on basic press rights: to endorse candidates, to criticize government and the military, to report on politicians' past mistakes and to depict images of violence.

About one of every four people said the media should receive no protection at all in those areas.

The 280-page study, "Free Expression and the American Public," was commissioned by the American Society of Newspaper Editors and Middle Tennessee State University to celebrate the 200th Anniversary of the Bill of Rights this year. But its contents come as a frightening reminder to First Amendment supporters that there is a wide gap between constitutional rights and how they are perceived.

"I think the reaction of a lot of editors is that come of their worst fears are confirmed," said Paul McMasters, who is deputy editorial director for USA Today and is active on press freedom for ASNE and the Society of Professional Journalists.

Nearly two out of four citizens would give no protection to reporting about public figures' sex lives, classified information or national security information.

Citizens said they would give far more protection to the rights of individuals to speak out about government.

Americans "do believe that they believe in free expression but, in fact, those same Americans most often believe in regulating, limiting or suppressing expression," concluded Robert O. Wyatt, the Middle Tennessee journalism professor who supervised the study.

Just one-third or less would protect at all times the right to buy books and magazines containing pictures of naked people, to speak offensively about racial or ethnic groups, or to burn the flag in protest. Nearly six out of 10 people said flag burning should receive no protection.

Nearly half of those asked would give no protection to advocacy of homesexual behavior or Satanism, public discussion of other people's sex habits, or slang sex references. Only about two out of 10 people would protect speech on such issues at all times.

"Many people believe that whatever offends them personally should be restricted or prohibited, that they have a legal right to protect themselves from offense," Wyatt said.

In their readiness to limit the speech of others, Americans have outlined a new "right," he said: the right not to be offended.

"The bottom line is that there is a terribly troubling trend by the American public to disregard the free speech rights of anyone but themselves," said McMasters.

"When two-thirds of the American public can't fully support a newspaper's right to editorialize on political campaigns, I think our democracy is on shakey footing," McMasters said. "Its time that we started paying more than lip

service to free speech in this country. …

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Press Freedom in Deep Trouble: Survey Finds Support for Free Speech Protections So Weak That the First Amendment Would Fail a Ratification Vote If Taken Today
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