Join in the fireworks: The ones you watch or the ones around freedom

Jun 30, 2016

By Gene Policinski
Inside the First Amendment

     Note to editors: This column is embargoed until Friday July 1 at 7am EST.

     This year's State of the First Amendment national survey (SOFA), conducted in partnership with USA TODAY, does more than just sample our attitudes about those five core freedoms — it also may show just how those freedoms can work.

     Overall, the survey's specific findings tilt to the positive on the First Amendment, thankfully. But there also are a few signs that we and our fellow citizens can do a better job of supporting freedom, or even knowing its components.

     A whopping 86 percent reject the notion that free speech ought to give way to protecting people from things that might offend them. When it comes to college campuses — where the impact of negative speech on social media really hits home — support even for speech that offends still stands at 57 percent. Only when it comes to high school students does free speech come up short of a majority: Just 35 percent say it's OK for those students to offend others.

     The survey, conducted by the Newseum Institute's First Amendment Center since 1997, still finds strong support for a free press as a "watchdog on government," though 74 percent doubt "news media attempt to report the news without bias." But perhaps the latter is not as much of an indictment in a time when some liberal and conservative news operations tout their points-of-view.

     Eight out of 10 are concerned about individual privacy in the Digital Age, but more than six of 10 would permit the government "to be able to force companies to unlock the data saved on the smartphones of customers who are accused of terrorist acts."

     So let's turn to an interesting change in attitudes following the tragic mass shooting in Orlando on June 12. The horrifying attack, in which 49 people were shot by an assailant, was followed by a burst of anti-Islamic rhetoric following the killer's declaration of allegiance to ISIS.

     In turn, all of that was followed by social and political pushback in the other direction. Muslim leaders decried the use of their faith to justify hatred of the United States or homophobic terrorism. Opposition was vocal to calls to increase surveillance of Muslims in America, or presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump's continued suggestion of a ban for an indeterminate period on Muslims entering the United States.

     The Center went into the field in late May with its annual, national survey of adults — days before the deaths in Orlando. But given the intense national debate involving religious liberty after the attack, a second round of sampling was commissioned and completed on June 27.

     The second survey found support for First Amendment protection for what respondents might consider fringe or extreme faiths actually increased, despite anti-Muslim rhetoric and reports of an ISIS connection that followed the worst mass shooting in U.S history: The number of people who said such protection does not extend to such faiths dropped from 29 percent to 22 percent.

     In both surveys, just over 1,000 adults were sampled by telephone, and the margin of error in the surveys was plus/minus 3.2 percent.

     The First Amendment is predicated on the notion that citizens able to freely debate — without government censorship or direction — will exchange views, sometimes strongly and on controversial subjects and find common ground.

     In this case, that exchange of views seemingly produced increased support for protecting views many would find offensive, even in the face of violence. In at least this survey's findings, the nation spoke — in favor of freedom.

     There's one more result from this year's State of the First Amendment that's worth noting — nearly four in 10 of those questioned could not name a single freedom in the First Amendment unaided. For the record, they are religion, speech, press, assembly and petition.

     Perhaps not identifying any one of the five as part of the First Amendment is not the same as not knowing you have those core freedoms. But neither does it build confidence that as a nation, we have a deep understanding of the core elements of what distinguishes our nation among others, or is so fundamental to the unique American experience of self-governance.

     So in the spirit of our national July 4th holiday this weekend and of the First Amendment year-round: Join in the fireworks — the ones you watch or the ones around important issues. And repeat after me: religion, speech, press, assembly and petition.

Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the Institute’s First Amendment Center. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @genefac.