Public Opinion and Free Speech

It seems pretty clear that the public opinion trends concerning freedom of expression are pointing in a more libertarian direction. We can see that in responses to questions regarding flag burning, hate speech, and indecent speech. The State of the First Amendment (SOFA) Survey has been asking questions related to these issues for a decade, and the results from the survey Stephen Ansolabehere and I conducted in July (with some questions on these topics added by my colleague Jamal Greene) seem consistent with responses on those surveys.  [Please forgive some of the alignment problems in the tables below; novice blogger that I am, I cannot figure out how to make the columns line up.]

Our survey did not include a flag burning question but the issue is covered in Public Opinion and Constitutional Controversy. At the time of Texas v. Johnson (1989), between 64 and 78 percent of the population supported a constitutional amendment prohibiting flag burning, according to various polls. Most recent polls show a population either split on the issue or with a majority opposing the amendment. The 2009 SOFA survey, for example, found that 60 percent oppose an amendment.

Our survey included the same hate speech questions that the SOFA surveys have included for the past decade. Below are the questions with the results from the 2008 and  2000 SOFA survey for comparison:

“In general, do you agree or disagree that people should be allowed to say things in public that might be offensive to racial groups?”

2009      SOFA 2008       SOFA 2000

Strongly agree                          20%                 24%                 15%
Mildly agree                               28%                 19%                  17%
Mildly disagree                         23%                 12%                  15%
Strongly disagree                     28%                  42%                52%

“In general, do you agree or disagree that people should be allowed to say things in public that might be offensive to religious groups?

2009     SOFA 2008      SOFA 2000

Strongly agree                      25%                   32%                22%
Mildly agree                           29%                   23%                 24%
Mildly disagree                     21%                    12%                 15%
Strongly disagree                 23%                   30%                 38%

Our results are close to recent SOFA surveys in terms of total “agree” versus “disagree”, but their sample seems to show greater numbers at the extremes. The trends seems pretty clear from all available surveys on offensive speech of this character, though. A narrow majority approves allowing offensive speech against religious groups but opposes allowing such speech against racial groups. The support for allowing speech of either class has gone up considerably over the past decade.

The same could be said regarding allowing offensive speech in other contexts, such as indecency and pornography. Since 1997 the SOFA survey asked about agreement or disagreement with the statement: “Musicians should be allowed to sing songs with lyrics that others may find offensive.”

1997     2008

Strongly agree                                              23%      42%
Mildly agree                                                   28%      23%
Mildly disagree                                             16%         9%
Strongly disagree                                         31%      24%

However, our survey found a relatively even split on a different question, which may have more to do with people’s attitudes toward television stations than free speech more generally:

“Do you think that the government ought to be able to fine a television network or station if it broadcasts a live interview or live performance where a person uses certain foul language or dirty words?” Yes 46%  No 53%

For what it is worth, a 2005 Time poll found that only 28% thought that the government should fine CBS for Janet Jackson’s nudity during the Super Bowl halftime show.  The General Social Survey also has also shown for some time that most Americans would not favor laws prohibiting  sale of pornography to adults, with a slight shift in a more libertarian direction in the last decade.

The GSS asks: “Which of these statements comes closest to your feelings about pornography laws? There should be laws against the distribution of pornography whatever the age. There should be laws against the distribution of pornography to persons under 18. There should be no laws forbidding the distribution of pornography.”

In 1998, 38% said laws against whatever the age, 57% said laws against for persons under 18, and 4% said no laws.  In 2008, 32% said laws against whatever the age, 64% said laws against for persons under 18, and 3% said no laws.