Report: Free speech awareness rises in 2012, support for off-campus speech rights about the same

Fifty-seven percent of Americans believe that public schools should not be able to punish students for posting “offensive” content on social media, according to the latest installment of the First Amendment Center’s State of the First Amendment report.

The 2012 report was released Tuesday, and while some of its findings continue to paint a grim picture for appreciation and knowledge of the First Amendment — 27 percent of Americans were unable to name any of its five freedoms, fairly consistent with last year’s results — a few responses are more optimistic for the future of the First Amendment inside and outside the schoolhouse gates.

Just 13 percent of respondents believed the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees, the lowest total in the past decade.

National awareness of freedom of speech as a First Amendment-protected right jumped from previous years; 65 percent of those responding were able to volunteer “speech” as a protected right. This marks the highest recorded total since 1997, when the surveying first began.

An overwhelming majority of adults surveyed, 85 percent, believe that people should be allowed to record or photograph the activities of the police in public as long as they do not interfere with what the police are doing. Confrontations between police and photojournalists — including smartphone-armed “citizen journalists” — have been escalating, with federal courts in Boston and Chicago ruling during the past year that the First Amendment does protect non-disruptive recording of police activity.

While this year’s report focused less on student media and student speech-related issues than last year’s, it turned some of its focus to the upcoming presidential election.

Among some of the report’s political findings:

  • About two-thirds of Americans oppose unlimited campaign spending by corporations and unions. The Supreme Court removed spending limits on political advertising for these groups in the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, relying on the First Amendment.
  • Forty percent of Americans said the religious affiliation of the presidential candidates will play a “somewhat or very important” role in their election choice.
  • Thirty percent of Americans said they get their “most useful information” about the candidates from newspapers and their websites, as opposed to 40 percent for television news.

For students, the statistic about public support for free expression on off-campus websites was noteworthy, because of the trend in courts and legislatures to extend schools’ punitive authority to online speech as if the speech occurred on school grounds. Over the past three years, the Center’s polling has consistently found that only one-third of adults support the proposition that schools can discipline “offensive” speech on students’ personal social networking pages.

This year’s survey of 1,006 adults was conducted in June via telephone by the PERT Group. Its sampling error is 3.2 percent. The complete survey results can be viewed here.

“While Americans remain generally supportive of First Amendment freedoms, it’s clear that as a nation we need to re-energize our efforts to provide education about those rights, starting with understanding what they are,” First Amendment Center Senior Vice President Gene Policinski said in a press release. “We need to prepare our fellow citizens for the tasks of defending and applying those five freedoms in the 21st century.”