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How the American Public Understands—and Misunderstands—Free Speech

Survey data shows faith in the First Amendment. However, the data also reveals varying beliefs about how the amendment protects free speech among different demographics. The data also brings to the fore misunderstandings about both the amendment and the social consequences of free speech.
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New York, New York. – January 29, 2017: People protesting the new immigration laws banning some Muslims at Battery Park in Manhattan in 2017 in New York City. © Christopher Penler/Shutterstock

August 16, 2022 22:10 EDT
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A cornerstone of America’s democratic principles, the First Amendment protects individuals from government restrictions on free speech. However, how people internalize this protection and act upon it has broad implications, especially if Americans believe such protections do not apply to them or misconstrue these legal protections to be much broader than the constitution provides. Our original survey data shows general faith in the First Amendment, but a distorted view of its scope of protection, a distortion that may harm democratic dialogue.

Tolerance and Concerns of Free Speech

The First Amendment makes no reference to race, gender, or ethnicity, but the ability of individuals and groups to assert their free speech rights may differ due to either historical discrimination or inadequate access to the judicial system to defend these rights. For example, southern legislatures passed laws after the abolition of slavery to limit the free speech rights of black Americans. These laws remained in effect for decades with an unequal application based on race. While laws have changed, many black Americans continue to have negative interactions with law enforcement and the judicial system in ways that most white Americans do not have. As such, perceptions of free speech protections would presumably differ.

In addition, what constitutes hate speech in some democracies traditionally has been protected under the First Amendment. A Pew Research study from 2015 found Americans more tolerant of hate speech than their contemporaries elsewhere. Meanwhile, a survey conducted by the Knight Foundation earlier this year found that Democrats thought that conservatives had an easier time exercising their free speech rights while conservatives thought the same about minority groups.

Many Americans also assume that free speech protections extend beyond government censorship to private entities. The First Amendment clearly prohibits government sanction or censorship outside of very narrow exceptions. It does not cover the broader consequences of free speech in terms of employment, boycotts, loss of group membership, or public ridicule. In the workplace, only narrow protections are provided, which are outlined in the National Labor Relations Act and the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Likewise, social media companies often espouse respect for free speech principles but have the legal right to remove posts deemed harmful. Yet the public often sees efforts at moderating speech on social media as a violation of free speech rights.

At the same time, Americans have shown a greater willingness to call out people for speech that is deemed socially unacceptable. Americans have also been willing to ostracize such people. This is often referred to as “cancel culture”, although the actual economic and social status lost may be greatly misunderstood. A Pew Research study in 2021 found that 49% of those aware of the term viewed acts of “cancel culture” as a form of accountability. Those who viewed “cancel culture” as a form of censorship or punishment tended to skew conservative. Findings in 2022 observe the same trend. A survey conducted earlier this year by Siena College also found that 84% of Americans have some level of concern about the consequences of speaking freely.

Our Survey Data

Given concern and potential misconceptions about the First Amendment, we conducted an original survey of 1,728 American respondents via Qualtrics between June 29 and July 11 with quota sampling for age, gender, and geographic region.

We first asked respondents to evaluate the statement “The First Amendment protects people like me” on a five-point scale (strongly disagree to strongly agree). Overall, 63.2% of respondents agreed with the statement, with higher agreement among Democrats (67.32%) and Republicans (69.19%).In terms of race, Whites were the most likely to agree (67.67%), followed by Asians (59.18%), Hispanics (55.55%), and Blacks (46.5%). Lastly, we see men slightly more likely to agree than women (65.11% vs. 61.81% respectively). Furthermore, regression analysis found that age, education, and identifying as either a Democrat or Republican positively corresponded, while being Black negatively corresponded, with believing the First Amendment protected people like themselves.

We then asked the following two questions:

“In your opinion, does freedom of speech mean that individuals have the right to voice opinions without fear of censorship from the government?”

“In your opinion, does freedom of speech mean that individuals have the right to voice opinions without fear of social consequences?”

Overall, 83.68% of respondents, with similar rates among Democrats and Republicans, stated that freedom of speech protects against government censorship. Meanwhile, 62.96% of respondents stated freedom of speech also allows one to voice their opinion without social consequences, a position beyond that of the actual constitutional protection. This pattern holds across party affiliations as well, with Republicans more likely to agree to this second statement than Democrats (69.37% vs. 59.97%).

We see across race and gender respondents more likely to answer affirmatively to the first prompt, while a majority in each group also affirmed the second. Regression analysis finds that only age positively corresponded with an increase in affirming that freedom of speech protects against government censorship and social consequences. Meanwhile, Republicans and women were more likely to believe that the First Amendment protected them from social consequences, while education negatively corresponded to this belief.

The Implications

This belief in protection from social consequences is deeply problematic for several reasons. One, either it shows a fundamental misunderstanding of constitutional protections or that respondents think such protections should be more expansive. Two, such beliefs potentially undermine civil discourse. If people believe that speaking offensively about individuals or groups of people cannot lead to social consequences, then maintaining civil discourse is near impossible. Likewise, if people reject that their speech can be criticized and lead to social ostracism, this risks encouraging individuals to retreat into homogeneous speech silos.

We are not suggesting a solution of self-censorship to feign cordiality nor one that ignores the slippage of terms such as free speech to mean something beyond its constitutional intent. Rather, this challenge requires a multipronged approach that emphasizes the domain of free speech protections and acknowledges and tolerates potential social costs to speech.

[This survey was funded partially by a grant from the Institute for Humane Studies.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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