- The Washington Times - Monday, July 2, 2001

More than 40 percent of Americans say the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution "goes too far in the rights it guarantees," an increase of 17 percent from the past year, according to a new poll released by the First Amendment Center.

"Americans have always embraced the idea of the First Amendment, but when it comes down to the actual practices they start backing off when things are done that offend them," said Paul McMasters, a First Amendment ombudsman for the Arlington-based Freedom Forum. "That is why we have a First Amendment — to protect against the will of the majority, the power of the government, or the passions of the moment."

In the two most recent terms of the U.S. Supreme Court, freedoms granted by the First Amendment were contested in 17 cases out of 150 heard on their merits in which the justices issued a written opinion. Ranging from the Boy Scouts to Playboy, these cases dealt with freedom of association, freedom of religion, freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

Poll results revealed "mixed feelings about the watchdog role of both the press and the government," said a news release from the center. While 41 percent polled say "the media has too much freedom," 36 percent contend "there's too much government censorship."

"Many Americans are willing to put fundamental freedoms on the line in order to protect themselves from perceived threats against their personal rights," said Mr. McMasters, who attributes the results in part to a "coarsening of our culture."

"A lot of people see too much that offends them in movies, on television, in music, and on the Internet," Mr. McMasters said. "When they feel assaulted by expression that is lewd, indecent, violent or hateful, they want to stop it. People think the First Amendment right is being abused rather than used."

Among those polled, 64 percent disagreed that "people should be allowed to say things in public that might be offensive to racial groups." Thirty-six percent were in favor of a law enforcing that ideal, while 60 percent opposed legislation to regulate racial speech.

"Everybody wants to stop speech that offends them, but if everybody got their way, there would be no speech whatsoever," Mr. McMasters said. "We have to tolerate bad speech for good principles."

"The whole idea of the First Amendment is a free exchange of ideas. There is no amendment that safeguards people from being offended," said noted First Amendment defender Nat Hentoff.

Seven in 10 Americans said it is important for the government to "hold the media in check."

"To a great extent, the fortunes of the First Amendment lie with the public perception of the press, and right now the press is not viewed very well by Americans," Mr. McMasters said. "The public feels that the press is not as accurate as it should be, is sensational, superficial, and too invasive."

Mr. Hentoff called the current generation of young people "the worst we've seen" in terms of respect for freedom of speech, citing several cases of burned or stolen student newspapers on college campuses across the country. He faulted the education system for failing to teach the Constitution properly.

"It's not so much a defiance, but an ignorance of the First Amendment," Mr. Hentoff said. "People don't know their own rights because it's not taught in schools. As various rights get shortened over time, people get conditioned."

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