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Digital revolution raises new issues
Nationwide survey on social-networking groups & the First Amendment

By Pam Parry
Special to the First Amendment Center

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — More than 50% of Americans believe the government should not restrict or regulate free speech on the Internet, according to a nationwide telephone survey.

The First Amendment Center sponsored the survey to learn what Americans think about the free-speech implications of social-networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook.

Significant findings
Only 4% of respondents said they had “been the victim of an untrue and/or offensive comment” on a social-networking site. A majority 50.2% said they had not, but 31.5% said they would “consider taking legal action” if they believed they were misrepresented on such a site.

The notably high percentage of respondents in the “do not know/did not answer” category for the two questions on offensive comments was a result of the survey design. The survey showed 45.8% said they did not know if they had been the victims of such remarks, or declined to respond. But that number was affected by the number of those who had not heard of social-networking sites — which was 40.2% of the total respondents to the survey.

As such, only 60% of total respondents in the survey responded to the two questions on offensive comments. (See accompanying survey.)

The survey also attempted to measure awareness and online activity, finding that 72.2% of respondents have daily access to the Internet. Although 26.1% of those surveyed never access the Internet, 68.6% of respondents go online at least once a day, and 16.4% indicated they do so at least 10 times daily. Nearly 59% of respondents had heard of Facebook or MySpace. Of the 58.5% who were aware of these sites, 22.7% said someone in their household participates in social-networking groups.

To measure participants’ openness to online free speech, the survey posed three questions.

  1. “Generally speaking, do you think the government should restrict or regulate free speech on the Internet?” More than half (52.1%) said government should not do so, with 32.5% saying it should and another 15.4% indicating either they did not know or they would not respond to that question.

  2. “Does the First Amendment give Americans the right to say anything they want to about anyone at any time on the Internet?” More than half of respondents (54.5%) said the First Amendment does not afford this right, with 32.6% saying it does.

  3. “Do you think public school officials ought to have the authority to punish students who post untrue and/or offensive materials about the school on a social networking site, even if they use their computers at home?” Almost half (48.3%) of respondents want to give public school officials that authority, compared to 38.1% who would not do so.

A statistical comparison indicated that the variable of age affected respondents’ views of online free speech. Nearly 40% of respondents who were at least 60 years old thought government ought to be able to regulate speech on the Internet, compared to 26.1% of 18-25 year olds who did. Older adults also were less likely to support the notion that the First Amendment gives Internet users carte blanche to say anything about anyone at any time, and they were the most supportive of the idea that public school officials should be able to regulate student speech that defamed the school — even if the speech originated on the students’ home computers. Nearly 48% of respondents who were 18 to 25 years old thought the First Amendment should provide limitless protection for online speech, but only 20.9% of those 60 and older agreed.

At least 50% of those 40 and older agreed that public school officials ought to be able to regulate student speech, while 36.4% of 26- to 29-year-olds agreed; followed by 39.8% of 18-25 year olds who thought student speech could be restricted.

Gender, education and income also affected respondents’ views on government restriction of online speech. Thirty-five percent of women thought the government should be able to regulate Internet speech, while only 28.4% of male respondents agreed. In terms of education, those who had a bachelor’s degree or higher were less likely to favor government regulation of the Internet. In terms of income, those who made less than $10,000 were much more likely to support the government’s ability to restrict online free speech than those who had a higher income.

Where do Americans get their information?
Five questions attempted to determine what sources of information Americans use for research and news. Nearly a quarter of respondents said they had used the Internet site Wikipedia. In terms of news, 37.8% of respondents said they used a mixture of all media to stay informed, while 23.0% said they followed the major networks as their primary source of news. Participants also used other sources as their primary news outlet: 16.8% cable, 9.4% newspapers, 5.4% Internet, 3.6% radio, and .08% magazines. Fewer than 2% reported they did not follow the news at all.

Because the major network channels are still a primary source for a large segment of society, the survey asked two questions regarding the most significant change in network news in recent years – the appointment of “Today Show” anchor Katie Couric as the first woman solo anchor of a major network broadcast. In September, Couric took the helm at the “CBS Evening News,” making broadcast history. The first question asked: “Do you think a woman can be as effective as a national anchor for a major network as a man?” Ninety percent of Americans said a woman could be as effective as a man, indicating perhaps the public would be accepting of such a change. Five percent said a woman could not measure up to a male counterpart, while 2.8% said maybe she could do as well, and 2.3% said they did not know or declined to answer.

In a followup question, the survey asked: “Was Katie Couric, herself, a good choice to be a solo anchor at the ‘CBS Evening News’?” Just over 56% said Couric was a good choice, while 16.5% disagreed and 27.4% did not know or did not answer. These statistics suggest that respondents overwhelmingly favor a woman as solo anchor at a major network, but they are somewhat divided over CBS’s selection of Couric. Age and gender also affected respondents’ views of Couric. Generally, the youngest segment of the population (18-25) preferred her as a selection for the anchor chair, and more women than men thought she was a good choice.

The last question about sources of information posed: “Do you trust your local newspaper as an accurate source of news?”  Nearly 58% of respondents said they trust their local newspaper, while 31.5% indicated they do not. Age also affected whether respondents trusted their local newspaper, with the oldest group being the most skeptical.

The data testify to the impact of the Internet, with more than 72% of respondents saying they have daily access to it. Despite the fact most respondents were over 30 years of age, nearly 60% of them had heard of social-networking groups called Facebook and MySpace. The bottom line is this: As more people use social-networking sites, the potential for legal problems associated with speech on the Internet continues to grow. The courts are plowing new ground in terms of speech on social-networking sites, and perhaps within the decade, the nation’s high court will have to draw a new line for acceptable speech on MySpace and Facebook, as well as other similar sites.

To obtain a random sample, the First Amendment Center purchased random-digit-dial telephone numbers from Survey Sampling Inc. for the United States, including Alaska and Hawaii. A public-relations research class at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., conducted the survey on behalf of the center. Under faculty supervision, 25 students called the RDD numbers from Oct. 10, 2006, to Nov. 2, 2006. They asked respondents 20 questions, amassing a sample size of 727 U.S. adults 18 years or older. The survey has a sampling error of plus or minus 4%.

Researchers asked six demographic questions to measure whether the data represented an accurate national sample. In terms of gender, 60.9% of respondents were women; 37.3% who were men. The respondents did not reflect the age group of the typical MySpace and Facebook user. Only 16.6% of respondents were under age 30, with 81.7% of respondents age 30 and older.

(See survey instrument for complete age breakdowns.)

Respondents were largely from the South, with 40.4% participating from that region. Another 24.3% of respondents were from the Midwest, with 18.2% from the West and 16.6% from the Northeast. Nearly 80% were white, while 6.7% were black, 3.7% were Hispanic, 3.6% were mixed race, 1.7% were Asian, 1.1% were American Indian, and 1.5% declared “something else” as their racial identity.

Respondents also reported their household income, with 23.7% saying their family made more than $70,000 last year. Nearly 5% said they made between $60,000 and $70,000 last year. Another 8.8% made between $50,000 and $60,000, 12.0% made between $30,000 and $40,000, 10.3% earned between $40,000 and $50,000, 6.5% made between $20,000 and $30,000, 7.7% made between $10,000 and $20,000, and 4.7% earned less than $10,000 annually.

Survey participants also were educated, with 37% saying they had either a bachelor’s degree or graduate degree, and another 32.7% indicating they had some college instruction. Fewer than 9% did not finish high school, with 20.5% saying they had a high school diploma.

Pam Parry is associate professor of journalism at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.

Student researchers included: Lisa Bates, Laura Buchanan, Nikkia Bullard, Lindsey Bunt, Mackenzie Fischer, Carrie Griggs, Madeline Hagan, Jessica Haines, Rebecca Hill, Val Horton, Jacklyn Johnston, Kristin McCarter, Christina McGhie, Erin Mullen, Ben Palos, Stephanie Phalor, Molly Reed, Jessica Reuter, Callie Riggs, Anne Roberts, Crystal Sparks, Grace Stewart, Sara Taylor, Emily Telford, Shandra West and Terry Winnett.


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