The First Amendment is holding its own — at least in the arena of public opinion.
That’s one of the findings of Freedom Forum’s 13th annual State of the First Amendment survey.
Freedom Forum is a nonprofit organization that directs the First Amendment Center, a clearinghouse for news and issues affecting the five rights guaranteed by the amendment.
(The nationwide survey polled 1,003 Americans this past summer by phone and claims to carry a 95 percent level of confidence. That means results could vary plus or minus 3.5 percent.)
The 2009 survey repeated a lengthy question that has been part of the poll since 1999. The poll taker first reads the 45-word First Amendment:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
Then, he asks if those being surveyed agree or disagree with the following:
“The First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees.”
Ten years ago, 28 percent said they agree that the amendment goes too far. Sixty-seven percent said it did not go too far in guaranteeing freedoms.
This year, 19 percent said it goes too far. Seventy-three percent said it does not. The percentages were about the same last year.
If you are a fan of the First Amendment, you would like the trend line the past 10 years if not the overall percentage decrease in those who thought the First Amendment goes too far.
If you dig deeper into the year-to-year survey results, a First Amendment fan would find more to like.
Back in 2001 and 2002, the First Amendment’s popularity was on the wane. Nearly 50 percent of those polled said it went too far — perhaps due to some insecurity bred by the 9/11 attacks and the war on terror.
Since then, the percentage has been on a steady decline. Instead of half, now only two out of 10 think the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees.
This year’s survey addressed three specific issues involving the press and the rest of the news media.
Forty percent say the press has too much freedom and 48 percent say the press has just the right amount.
Seventy-one percent agreed that it was important for our democracy that the news media act as a watchdog on government. That’s down slightly from 76 percent last year.
When asked if the news media tries to report news without bias, 66 percent said no. That’s up from 64 percent last year.
This year’s survey also broached the issue of censorship and television programming.
Pollsters asked: Who should be primarily responsible for keeping “inappropriate” material on television away from children? Three choices were given: parents, the government or broadcasters.
Back in 2004, an overwhelming number of Americans (87 percent) said parents should be the primary guardians of what their children see on television. Only 10 percent said broadcasters bear the primary responsibility.
That percentage has been on a steady decline since. More and more Americans are saying it’s the responsibility of broadcasters. This year, 72 percent said the parents held the primary responsibility and 20 percent said it was the primary responsibility of broadcasters.
Why the shift? The survey provides no answers, only the data, but perhaps it’s because of expanding cable channels and more-daring programming — more daring from a parent’s point of view.
There’s also small but growing support for the government to get more involved.
When the “who-is-primarily-responsible” question was first asked in 2004, only 1 percent said “government.” Five years later it’s at 5 percent.
Phil Lewis is editor of the Daily News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org