Free expres-sion philoso-phers have long asserted that a society’s overall freedom hinges on the rights of citizens to speak and publish freely. That idea helped spark the American Revolution and has permeated the nation’s political climate for more than 200 years. A new study by the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center, however, suggests that a growing number of Americans fail to appreciate the importance of free expression principles.
A startling 34 percent of Americans surveyed agreed with the statement, “The First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees.” Only 13 percent agreed with that statement a year ago. Even more shockingly, 47 percent of young adults ages 18-30 agreed that the First Amendment goes too far. That age group is generally considered to be more open to new ideas and the ability to express widely, but maybe only for what they have to say. The results were gathered in a national survey of more than 1,000 adults.
It is understandable in many ways why Americans might fail to appreciate the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment. Abuses of the First Amendment surround us. Insincere politicians use their words to snooker voters with vacuous promises. Shrill pundits make emotional outbursts instead of suggesting rational solutions. Advertisers mislead us with exaggerated claims. Hate speech runs rampant on the Internet. Broadcasters have broken the boundaries of decency on radio and television. Obscenity peddlers pollute society while the Department of Justice refuses to pursue prosecutions.
The public perceives much “news” reporting as biased and unfair. Only 46 percent of survey respondents believe the news media even try to report the news without bias. Other reporting is done in a sensational fashion, adding little substance to a watered-down news agenda.
Clearly, irresponsible voices in society have exploited the free expression rights provided in the First Amendment. The problem, however, is not that the First Amendment goes too far in guaranteeing rights, but rather that some unethical communicators take advantage of free expression rights to deceive, mislead, divide and offend.