Still Going Strong After 225 Years: Our Love-Hate Relationship With the First Amendment

July 6, 2017

By Lata Nott
Inside the First Amendment

Common practice for liberals and conservatives now is to take turns calling each other enemies of the First Amendment. The results of this year's "State of the First Amendment" survey gave us the opportunity to consider these insults — and after the numbers are crunched, who is the real enemy of the First Amendment?

Well, no one. And, everyone.

Most of our fellow citizens, regardless of their political ideology, are quite fond of the First Amendment, at least in the abstract. The people who think that the First Amendment goes too far are a minority — 22.5 percent of us. A majority of Americans (67.7 percent) thinks that the press plays an important role as a watchdog on government; a slightly narrower majority (58.8 percent) thinks that freedom of religion should extend to all religious groups, even those widely considered extreme or fringe.

That's the good news: Even in a time of great political turmoil, we're generally supportive of the First Amendment's protections.

The bad news: When it comes down to specific applications of the First Amendment, we're less positive, and also deeply divided along ideological lines. Both liberals and conservatives have certain pain points where they balk at the amount of protection that the First Amendment provides.

Liberals are more likely than conservatives to think:

  • Colleges should be able to ban speakers with controversial views.
  • People should not be able to express racist comments on social media.

Meanwhile, conservatives are more likely than liberals to think:

  • Government officials who leak information to the press should be prosecuted.
  • Journalists should not be able to publish information obtained illegally, even if it serves the public interest.
  • Government should be able to determine which media outlets can attend briefings.
  • Government should be able to hold Muslims to a higher standard of scrutiny.

Worth noting: Some of these differences in attitude may not be a direct result of whether you're a liberal or a conservative; instead, they might be circumstantial. Do more liberals support press freedoms because that's a core value of liberal ideology — or because the press is a watchdog on the government, which liberals don't currently control?

Do more conservatives think that colleges shouldn't be able to ban speakers because of a greater commitment to free speech — or because most banned speakers, at least in recent years, have tended to be conservative? It will be interesting to see in subsequent years if attitudes change as circumstances change.

One thing that unites the majority of Americans right now: Most of us, liberals and conservatives, prefer to read or listen to news that aligns with our own views.

That's true even if you think that the news media reports with a bias, as most Americans do (56.8 percent). Apparently, we're not inclined to correct that bias by taking in multiple and varied news sources. Instead, we're more likely to double down on the news that fits in with our pre-existing ideological perspectives.

This finding is both obvious and disheartening: Everyone likes reading and hearing news that confirms what they already believed. That's one of the factors that keep us so divided.

Lata Nott is executive director of the First Amendment Center of the Newseum Institute. Contact her via email at lnott@newseum.org, or follow her on Twitter at @LataNott.

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