State of the First Amendment report

Advocacy, Censorship, General Interest, Intellectual Freedom Issues

As a library director back in the early 1990s, I was dealing with a pretty concentrated batch of challenges: formal requests by members of the public to have us remove certain books from our collection. These patrons were certainly sincere, and they presented themselves in no uncertain terms as a majority. But, I wondered, were they really?

So I did a survey. The question was something like, “Recently some people in our community have expressed concern about some of the perspectives represented in the library’s collections. What is your view?”

The choices were roughly:

  • Be bold. Collect as rich and varied a selection as we can afford, from everywhere.
  • Be reasonable. Stick to the mainstream: what’s classic, and what’s of significant general interest.
  • Be careful. While most materials are fine, stay away from things are too politically controversial, have too much sexual content, or are too violent. (This was presented to me as the “family friendly” choice.)

Then I gave people room for comments.

We had volunteers stand at the doors and hand out the forms. I got about 700 of them back in a day or so. I sorted them into three piles:

  • Anything goes.
  • Some materials are not appropriate.
  • The job of the library is to support a particular social and political perspective.

I expected most of the responses to fall into the second bucket, the hump in the bell curve. To my surprise, a solid 85% of a generally Republican and conservative county, said “No censorship! Of any kind!” Another 13 percent felt that some materials might not be appropriate, but they thought this was a slippery slope. And fewer than 2% of the respondents expressed the cautious, conservative views that had been presented to me as the overwhelming consensus.

So the next time someone told me, “You know, most people in the community agree with me,” I pulled out the survey and said, “Actually, no. They don’t.”

I haven’t thought about that survey in years. But I’m reminded of it when I read about the Newseum Institute‘s latest annual survey about the State of the First Amendment. You can find it here. Download the whole report for an eye-opening read. #sofa16

Newseum Institute Infographic The Newseum has been conducting an annual survey since 1997 about Americans’ understanding and support of the First Amendment. The latest results, based on a survey done last May, sounded both surprising and familiar to me.

  • 86 percent of those responding in the national survey favored “protecting speech,” while just 10 percent favored limits aimed at “protecting people from hearing things that offend them.”
  • 57 percent said college students should be able to speak freely. The results dropped to 35 percent for students in high school. (And this explains the continuing surge of attacks on minors’ free speech rights.)
  • “A follow-up survey done after the June 12 mass shooting in Orlando showed support for First Amendment protection for all religious faiths, regardless of how extreme or fringe the survey respondents might consider the beliefs of those faiths, actually increased, despite anti-Muslim rhetoric and reports of an ISIS connection that followed the worst mass shooting in U.S. history.”

For those of us in the Intellectual Freedom community, it’s easy to take the rattle of pitchforks at the gate as broad popular sentiment. But the truth is, the data prove, most Americans actually believe in, actually value, free speech. They just tend not to be so noisy about it.

That’s worth remembering.

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