State of the First Amendment 2017

Each year the First Amendment Center of the Newseum Institute conducts a State of the First Amendment survey, which examines Americans views on freedom of speech, the press, assembly, petition, and religion.

Despite one of the most contentious elections in American history, the survey results offer both good news and bad in 2017. The good news – most Americans generally remain supportive of the First Amendment. In response to the statement, “The First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees” 69% of respondents disagreed.

However, there are sharp ideological divisions toward the First Amendment. For example, conservatives were more likely than liberals to believe the following: (1) that government officials who leak information should be prosecuted and (2) that Muslims should be held to a higher level of scrutiny by the government. Just over half of Americans (59%) believe that religious freedom applies to all religious groups. On the other side of the aisle, liberals were more likely to believe that colleges should be allowed to ban controversial speakers and that people should not be able to express racists viewpoints on social media.

There’s more positive news in 2017. Forty-three percent of Americans agreed that the media tries to report the news without bias – a huge improvement from the 23% in 2016.

But there is also disturbing news – 61% expressed a preference for news information that align with their own beliefs, indicating that many American may not view news from outlets they follow as ‘biased’ or negative.

Writing his column, The Big Idea in the Washington Post, James Hohmann commented on the trend of “fake news”. Using fake news to influence the political landscape is nothing new.  Fake news amounts to propaganda and its uses stretch back centuries. Seventy-four percent of Americans surveyed do not think fake news reports should be protected by the First Amendment, and 34% reported a lessening of trust in news obtained on social media. One of the issues at stake is what people perceive to be fake news

There is also an increasing willingness to censor the news. According to the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Survey for 2017, 39% of Americans support allowing Congress to stop the news media from reporting on any issue deemed to be on national security without government approval. Twenty-eight percent think the federal government should have the power to revoke broadcast licenses of major news organizations if the government says media is fabricating news about the president or administration. This now includes anything published or broadcast about the president he does not like. That’s what propaganda looks like.

What’s especially troubling is the lack of understanding on the rights the First Amendment guarantees and the authoritarian state the United States would become without them.

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