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Good news, bad news in latest First Amendment survey

By Ken Paulson
Executive director, First Amendment Center

There's some good news for the media in our annual State of the First Amendment Survey: The American public continues to say that the media have a valuable watchdog role, keeping an eye on government.

But there's a flip side: A majority of Americans also say that the government needs to keep the media in check. That sentiment runs throughout our annual survey. Americans respect the principles of free speech and free press but are often troubled by their practice.

A total of 82% of respondents say they believe it is important for the media to hold the government in check. Conversely, 71% say they believe it is important for the government to hold the media in check.

In addition, when asked whether they have more concern about the media having too much freedom or the government imposing too much censorship, 41% say their concern lies with the media and 36% say they are more concerned about government censorship.

Of course, the word "media" encompasses a broad spectrum of news, education and information providers. When asked specifically about the freedom of the news media, 46% of Americans say the press has too much freedom to do what it wants. This is down slightly from last year's figure of 51%, but certainly not a source of comfort for America's newspapers and broadcasters.

It also appears that the 2000 presidential election has had an impact on how the American public perceives both the press and the U.S. Supreme Court. The incorrect prediction that Al Gore had won the election, coupled with a Supreme Court hearing in which, as usual, television cameras were barred, may have had a lasting impact on public opinion.

For example, we've asked in our last two surveys whether a news report projecting the winner of an election would tend to discourage people from voting. In two successive years, 64% of respondents have said that they believe people would be less likely to vote.

But if the perception of a problem has remained steady, the solution for that problem has shifted dramatically. Eighty percent of those polled this year said television networks should not be allowed to project winners of an election while people are still voting. This is up from 70% a year ago.

When asked whether they would favor a law to bar news organizations from projecting a winner of a presidential election while people are still voting, 53% say they would support such legislation.

For the first time in our polling, we had a majority of respondents say they strongly believe that broadcasters should be allowed to televise the proceedings of the U.S. Supreme Court. Another 26% mildly agree with that proposition, making three out of four Americans in favor of television access to the most important court in the land.

The survey was based on telephone interviews with a random national sample of 1,012 adults, conducted between May 16 and June 6, 2001, by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut.

Among other key findings:

  • Support for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would make it illegal to burn or desecrate the American flag appears to be waning. Fifty-nine percent of Americans now say they are opposed to such an amendment, up from 48% just two years ago.

  • A slight majority of respondents say they are concerned that President George Bush's charitable-choice plan — which would provide public funding to religious groups for social services — may violate the separation of church and state.

  • Eight out of 10 respondents say there should be a limit to the amount of money that political parties can spend during a federal election campaign. About 60% of those polled say they believe that limiting the amount of money that individuals or groups can contribute to the political parties would not violate the First Amendment.

  • There's increasing support for First Amendment protection for the Internet. Seventy-six percent of those surveyed say that the Internet should have the same First Amendment status as books and newspapers, up from just 56% four years ago. It appears that as more Americans see the information and communication benefits of the Internet, they are more supportive of free expression online.

The most startling result of the survey is also the one that may be the most difficult to explain.

Each year, we ask Americans to agree or disagree with this statement: "The First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees."

In 2001, 29% strongly agreed with that statement, with another 10% mildly agreeing. That suggests that almost four in 10 Americans believe that the First Amendment provides too much freedom, up dramatically from just one in five last year.

The polling experts at the University of Connecticut say this sense of too much freedom is particularly strong among those who believe that there should be a law to prevent broadcasters from predicting election winners before the polls are closed.

If there is indeed that kind of cause and effect, there's a clear message for the news media here. A highly visible and reckless error — such as predicting the wrong winner in a presidential election — can have devastating consequences for the First Amendment. Four out of five Americans have become very comfortable with the idea of limiting the right to publish constitutionally protected information, as long as it gives them a greater sense of comfort about the election process.

The challenge remains for the nation's press to restore faith in its role as a watchdog. It's clear that the public still respects that role, but in an era of happy-talk broadcasts, tabloidization and a dearth of investigative reporting, many Americans are left to wonder whether that watchdog is barking or simply howling at the moon.

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