Every year the First Amendment Center of the Newseum Institute conducts the State of the First Amendment survey, which examines Americans’ views on freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition, and samples their opinions on contemporary First Amendment issues.
The results of the 2017 survey show that, despite coming out of one of the most politically contentious years in U.S. history, most Americans remain generally supportive of the First Amendment. When asked if the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees, 69 percent of survey respondents disagreed.
However, there are ideological divisions in attitudes toward the First Amendment, with liberals and conservatives disagreeing on the amount of protection the First Amendment should provide in certain scenarios. Conservatives were more likely than liberals to believe that government officials who leak information should be prosecuted and that the government should be able to hold Muslims to a higher level of scrutiny. However, liberals were more likely than conservatives to think that colleges should be able to ban speakers with controversial views and that people should not be able to express racist views on social media.
This year, 43 percent of Americans agreed that news media outlets try to report the news without bias — a significant improvement from only 23 percent in 2016. However, a majority of Americans (61 percent) expressed a preference for news information that aligns with their own views, demonstrating that many Americans may not view “biased” news in a negative light. The 2017 survey also attempted to assess the impact of the “fake news” phenomenon. Seventy-four percent of Americans did not think that fake news reports should be protected by the First Amendment, and about one-third (34 percent) reported a decrease in trust in news obtained from social media.
Regarding freedom of religion, 59 percent of Americans believe that religious freedom should apply to all religious groups, even those widely considered as “extreme” or fringe. The age group least likely to agree with this is Americans between the ages of 18 and 29: Just 49 percent of them supported protection for all religious faiths, compared to over 60 percent for every other age group.
On free speech, 43 percent of Americans felt that colleges should have the right to ban controversial campus speakers. Those who strongly agreed or disagreed with this tended to be current students and/or activists (people who had participated in political actions over the past year, such as signing a petition or attending a protest) on both sides of the political spectrum. Other Americans — even those in the 18 to 29-year-old millennial demographic — were more lukewarm on this issue.
“We were glad to find that most Americans still support the First Amendment, although it’s troubling that almost one in four think that we have too much freedom,” said Lata Nott, executive director of the First Amendment Center. “It’s also troubling that even people who support the First Amendment in the abstract often dislike it when it’s applied in real life.”
Survey conducted and supported by Fors Marsh Group, and contributing support provided by the Gannett Foundation.
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The First Five launches with a discussion of the results of this year’s State of the First Amendment Survey.