A report issued and discussed Tuesday at an afternoon forum at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., points to a troubling new trend, one that shows exactly how rattled our nation has become in the wake of national scandals.
According to the 2013 State of the First Amendment, a third of Americans, or 34 percent, believe the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees. While a majority of Americans still say it does not go too far, the gap is increasing at an alarming rate. This year, there was a significant increase — up from 13 percent in 2012 — in those people who claimed that the First Amendment goes too far in protecting individual rights.
The survey, conducted since 1997 by the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center, determines public knowledge and opinion about the First Amendment and related issues.
“It’s unsettling to see a third of Americans view the First Amendment as providing too much liberty,” said Ken Paulson, First Amendment Center president and dean of the College of Mass Communication at Middle Tennessee State University. “This underscores the need for more First Amendment education. If we truly understand the essential role of these freedoms in a democracy, we’re more likely to protect them.”
The survey, which was conducted in May, polled 1,006 Americans by telephone. The sampling error was plus or minus 3.2 percent.
Regrettably, it seems, domestic terrorism, scandals involving the Internal Revenue Service and the National Security Administration, and fears of overreaching by the Obama administration have eroded the very rights that have come to distinguish America from the rest of the world.
While the report does not go into detail as to causes, it does point to how our country reacts when it faces scares and scandals.
“It is important to note that this survey was conducted in May, shortly after the Boston Marathon bombing. This jump in the percentage of individuals who think the First Amendment goes too far represents Americans’ increased willingness to give up their rights and freedoms in return for greater security when they feel threatened,” the authors of the report said.
While most Americans polled said they are grateful to have the First Amendment, there are parts of it that “need improvement.”
The good news: Eighty percent agreed it is important for our democracy that the news media act as an independent “watchdog” over government on behalf of the public; and 46 percent believe that “the news media try to report the news without bias,” the highest number since the survey began asking the question in 2004. The bad news: Nearly half of respondents said the news media are biased, and they do not trust what they read, view or hear. In addition, an overwhelming number, 74 percent, of Americans say they are “more likely to get most of their news from a news media source that has similar political views to their own.”
Americans are split over whether journalists should be required to reveal confidential news sources “in order to make the United States safer.” In 2008, 37 percent favored requiring reporters to reveal sources; 55 percent were against. This year, the number of Americans favoring a requirement that journalists reveal sources had jumped to 44 percent.
Some experts debating the results Tuesday said certain factors beyond the margin of error showed that the poll also revealed many of our nation’s citizens may not have a full grasp of the very rights they are trying to interpret.
The survey found that when people were asked to name the five specific freedoms in the First Amendment, 59 percent could name freedom of speech; 24 percent could name freedom of religion; 14 percent, freedom of the press; 11 percent, the right to assemble; and only 4 percent could come up with the right to petition.
When outlining the “single most important freedom,” 47 percent said freedom of speech; 10 percent said freedom of religion; 7 percent said freedom of choice; 5 percent said right to vote; 5 percent said right to bear arms; 3 percent said right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; and 1 percent said freedom of the press.
“As a nation, we must better prepare our fellow and future citizens for the hard decision of defending core freedoms against those who would damage or limit them by violence or by law,” said the authors.
Some might argue that the damage is significant. It would seem constitutional rights are considered “overreaching” — be it within government or media — and they have taken their toll. There is much work to be done.
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