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We lose sight of our rights when freedom and fear collide

By Kenneth A. Paulson
Senior vice president, the Freedom Forum
Executive director, First Amendment Center

09.08.02

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Fear can short-circuit freedom.

From Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of civil liberties during the Civil War to the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II to the McCarthyism of the 1950s, our nation sometimes has lost sight of its commitment to freedom. Fear does that.

Little wonder, then, that security concerns and civil liberties have been both discussed and debated since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. We’ve all had to ask ourselves some tough questions.

Is our society too free for its own good? Can we be free and safe? Are we willing to trade some personal freedoms for greater personal security? And how do we feel about the extensive freedoms contained in the First Amendment? How should they be applied more than 210 years after ratification?

At the First Amendment Center, we conduct an annual survey of Americans’ attitudes toward the First Amendment. This year, we collaborated with American Journalism Review to take a closer look at how the nation sees the First Amendment after Sept. 11, particularly when it comes to the role of a free press and access to public information.

In the past, the results have been fairly consistent, if a bit disquieting. Each year, a majority of Americans have said they would restrict public remarks that might offend people of other faiths or races. About half of those surveyed have said they would restrict the public display of potentially offensive art. Almost four people in 10 have told us they would limit the public performance of music that might offend others.

During the five years in which we’ve conducted the survey with the Center for Survey Research & Analysis at the University of Connecticut, we’ve seen willingness by many to exchange a little liberty for less interpersonal conflict. There’s been growing support to limit expression when it upsets or insults others — the codification of political correctness. It sometimes appears that the land of the free has become the home of the easily offended.

But now the stakes have risen. In the wake of Sept. 11, Americans are afraid of more than just being offended. The results of the 2002 survey suggest that many Americans view these fundamental freedoms as possible obstacles to the war on terrorism.

That’s not to suggest a monolithic response to these core First Amendment values. In truth, Americans are of multiple minds about the 45 words drafted by James Madison.

While a majority indicate that they respect the First Amendment, a significant percentage seem inclined to rewrite it.

Among the key findings:

  • For the first time in our polling, almost half of those surveyed said that the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees. About 49% said the First Amendment gives us too much freedom, up from 39% last year and 22% in 2000.
  • The least popular First Amendment right is freedom of the press. Forty-two percent of respondents said the press in America has too much freedom to do what it wants, roughly the same level as last year.
  • More than 40% said newspapers should not be allowed to freely criticize the U.S. military about its strategy and performance.
  • Roughly half of those surveyed said the American press has been too aggressive in asking government officials for information about the war on terrorism.
  • More than four in 10 said they would limit the academic freedom of professors and bar criticism of military policy.
  • About half of those surveyed said government should be able to monitor religious groups in the interest of national security, even if that means infringing upon religious freedom.
  • More than four in 10 said the government should have greater power to monitor the activities of Muslims living in the United States than it does other religious groups.

Clearly, the terrorist attacks have taken a toll. Principles that sound good in the abstract are a little less appealing when your greatest fear is getting on an airplane.

It’s not entirely surprising that many Americans have had second thoughts about the First Amendment, particularly during a time of crisis. After all, the First Amendment was designed to protect minority viewpoints and faiths. That can be difficult to remember when there’s an overwhelming public call for unity. Some have little patience with dissent.

Still, there are signs that Americans do appreciate the fruits of First Amendment freedoms, particularly access to information. At a time of great national unease, we all want to know more about the challenges we face. Information is the best antidote for anxiety.

About 40% of those surveyed said they have too little access to information about the war on terrorism, compared to 16% who said there’s too much. Forty-eight percent of those surveyed said there’s too little access to government records, compared to 8% who said there’s too much.

While many Americans said that we have too much freedom under the First Amendment and that the nation’s news media have too many privileges, they understand and appreciate the value of news and information.

The goal for all who support First Amendment freedoms — particularly those who work for a free press — should be to demonstrate how the free flow of ideas enriches our lives and in fact bolsters our collective security. Information gives us insight and the power to make reasoned decisions at a difficult time.

It’s ironic that many Americans have doubts about these fundamental freedoms in the wake of the terrorist attacks.

When President Bush addressed the nation last Sept. 20, he cautioned us that “freedom and fear are at war.” He noted that the terrorists targeted the United States because we embrace liberty.

“The terrorists hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other,” the president said.

In other words, the terrorists view our personal liberties with contempt and see them as a weakness.

The challenge for all Americans — today more than ever — is to truly embrace the freedoms of the First Amendment and show just how strong we really are.

Ken Paulson is executive director of the First Amendment Center with offices in Arlington, Va., and Nashville, Tenn. His mailing address is:
Ken Paulson
First Amendment Center
1207 18th Ave. S
Nashville, TN 37212

Related

New 2002 'State of the First Amendment' survey suggests many Americans see freedoms as obstacles in war on terror
News release Almost half say First Amendment 'goes too far' in rights it guarantees in annual survey by First Amendment Center/American Journalism Review.  08.29.02

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