Study: On First Amendment Freedoms, Americans Are Trending Libertarian

Daniel Davis
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Posted: Jul 08, 2015 4:00 PM
Study: On First Amendment Freedoms, Americans Are Trending Libertarian

Does the First Amendment go too far? According to a new survey, most Americans say it doesn't. Americans in the year 2015 are more pro-free speech, pro-religious liberty, and anti-government spying than they have been in recent years. This should come as welcome news to liberty-loving Americans who feel squelched by the toxic culture of political correctness.

The study, conducted by the Newseum's First Amendment Center, surveyed Americans on a range of hot-button political issues that pertain to the First Amendment. Should businesses be forced to violate their consciences and serve gay weddings? Should the government's domestic spying programs be more limited? Should corporate spending on elections have limits? While not all the results will satisfy conservatives, the overall trend is good news.

Take the First Amendment itself. Seventy-five percent of respondents said the First Amendment does not go too far, and only 19 percent said it does. That's nearly a 20-point shift in favor of First Amendment rights from one year ago, when 57 percent of respondents said the First Amendment goes too far. This year's response is actually more in line with historic levels. Temporary drops in support for First Amendment rights have tended to follow major terror events, such as 9/11 or the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. But support for the First Amendment has always bounced back, as it now seems to have done.

There is also an encouraging correlation between age and support for First Amendment rights. Only 9 percent of Americans under age 30 think the First Amendment goes too far, while 22 percent of seniors (above age 65) think it goes too far. This same correlation holds for the intermediary age groups as well, creating a steady gradient between young adults and seniors on the issue.

Saying that the First Amendment "doesn't go too far" is admittedly somewhat vague and subjective, but when we look at specific issues — particularly the issues where First Amendment rights really matter — support for the First Amendment generally holds up.

Consider this one: Should state governments be able to deny people license plates that display the Confederate flag? Fifty-six percent of respondents said no, and 35 percent said yes. The most endangered speech is always unpopular speech, and if anything is unpopular these days — and deservedly so — it's the displaying of the Confederate flag. Thankfully, 56 percent of Americans recognize that unpopular and even immoral speech should not be outlawed.

Perhaps the most encouraging survey result, though, pertains to religious liberty. Last year, 52 percent of Americans believed that businesses should not have the right to decline service to gay weddings, regardless of their religious or conscientious objections. In 2015, that number has shrunk to 38 percent — a 14-point drop. This is a dramatic shift, and it comes at a time when Christian-run businesses and religious institutions are bracing for a legal jihad. Some Christian bakers have already been forced out of business for declining to provide services that they conscientiously object to, and now, with same-sex marriage being nationalized by the Supreme Court, a string of legal battles are certain to lie ahead.

The American public is only now catching a glimpse of the legal implications of same-sex marriage, and many are simply shocked. The America where Christian bakers are forced out of business is not the America that they know and love. Perhaps that shock is what lies behind the 14-point shift in favor of religious liberty. It should be noted, though, that 57 percent of Democrats in this survey still think Christian bakers should have to serve gay weddings. That's three points higher than the non-religious people surveyed. Perhaps religious Democrats should rethink what kind of hostile secularists they're partnering with.

In another interesting statistic, 54 percent of respondents said they are against government spying on phone calls and online messages in order to catch terrorists. Thirty-seven said they support such spying operations. Interestingly, independent voters showed the least support for these operations, with only 31 percent approving them. So independents are actually the most libertarian on this highly contentious "libertarian" issue.

When asked whether drawing cartoons of Muhammed should be legal, 60 percent said yes, while 32 percent said no. That's quite encouraging, though one wonders what kind of backward and illiberal ideology the 32 percent hold. The even better news is that 77 percent of Americans under 30 support the right to draw Muhammed. Hopefully, young Americans aren't being selective in their support for free speech here.

The one First Amendment issue where public opinion trends less libertarian is the issue of campaign finance. When asked whether corporations and unions should have more limits placed on their campaign spending, 73 percent said yes. Only 23 percent said spending should remain unlimited. This represents a 10-point shift in favor of stricter spending rules since 2012. In 2010, the Supreme Court liberalized campaign spending laws in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

What conclusion can we draw from this overall trend toward free speech and religious liberty? For one, we should be encouraged that the popular impulse toward personal freedom remains deeply embedded in the American DNA. Of course, we should not overstate the positives. Public opinion could easily change in the coming years, particularly as cultural elites wield a strong influence over the minds of many Americans. But we should also note something rather astonishing — that this renewed libertarian impulse has emerged in spite of the relentless war on political incorrectness that is being waged around us. Perhaps that exposes the PC war for what it really is: a top-down imposition of morality from the cultural elites down onto everyone else. What a gratifying truth.