The First Amendment we know and love would be under serious attack if most Americans had their way, according to some shocking, underlying findings from a Cato Institute survey.
The Institute’s Free Speech and Tolerance Survey was conducted in conjunction with YouGov, collected responses from over 2,500 Americans in late August, just days after the infamous Charlottesville, VA protests.
One in four think hate speech is currently illegal
A substantial portion of the population, and strong majorities of both African-Americans and Latinos, believe that supporting someone’s legal right to say something racist is as bad as saying it yourself. Over six in ten Latinos (61%) and nearly two-thirds of African-Americans (65%) believe that “supporting someone’s right to say racist things is as bad as holding racist views yourself.” Over one-third of whites (34%) of whites and 43% of all respondents agree with that view.
Survey results indicate many Americans have often-contradictory opinions but nonetheless favor some draconian remedies which might be considered “content based restrictions” on free speech. Such “content based restrictions” serve as a “fault line” which our federal courts have used in recent decades to strike down laws, regulations and practices of federal, state and local governments found to be unconstitutional restrictions on free speech.
While that suggests our judiciary might be counted on to protect government overreach or popular abuses (its traditional role in checking the other branches), the other risk must also be considered: that popular sea changes in attitudes could lead to massive future shifts in what the courts consider protected free speech.
More than half of respondents — 56% — believe it is possible to have free speech, while simultaneously banning hate speech.
The difficulty of defining hate speech was recognized by most survey respondents.
Most Americans — 59% — believe people should be “allowed” to express unpopular opinions in public, even if they are “deeply offensive to other people.” On the other hand, four in ten agree that government “should prevent people from engaging in hate speech against certain groups in public.” While that opinion is still a minority, 40% support for what amounts to criminalizing “hate speech” should set off alarm bells.
There are also significant racial, ethnic and political-party-identification divides. While two-thirds of white respondents oppose government bans on “public hate speech,” nearly three in five African-Americans (56%) and Latinos (58%) support such bans. Among self-identified Republicans, 72% oppose such bans, while more than half of self-identified Democrats (52%), 59% of African-American Democrats and 65% of Latino Democrats support them.
Interestingly, over five in nine (55%) white Democrats oppose the bans, indicating that on matters of free speech, white Democrats are more in line with average Republicans than with minority members of their party.
Self-described libertarians (82%) oppose these bans, while nearly two-thirds of “populists” (defined in the report as “social conservatives who also support bigger government”) support them.
Attitudes among current college students may be most worrisome. The survey found that current college students are split (49-49%) in favor and opposition to government bans on hate speech.
Most respondents (79%) find hate speech “morally unacceptable.” The Cato Institute’s conclusion is that many respondents do distinguish between “allowing” and “endorsing” speech they find unacceptable. However, this finding, when taken in conjunction with the primary finding that 40% agree that government “should prevent…hate speech,” shows that roughly one-half of respondents support banning speech which they find unacceptable.
Finally, a surprising finding: 24% — one in four — think hate speech is currently illegal.
A substantial portion of the American population is currently willing to impose their own moral judgments on “hate speech” — however arbitrary — on others.
What does this mean for the future of the country?
Current racial and ethnic disparities in the propriety of government restriction on speech indicate that future demographic trends could put free speech at risk or at least result in changing legal standards as to what is constitutionally-permitted free speech. These trends may be accelerated if the nation continues to experience significant immigration from parts of the world without robust traditions of civil rights and cultural tolerance for differences in opinion, and assumes newcomers do not readily adopt traditional American attitudes towards free speech and constitutional rights. These trends may be further supported by the significant support among current college students for hate speech restrictions, assuming both that this segment of the population does not as a group experience a significant attitudinal shift and that it is responsible for producing the next generation of judges, legislators, government regulators and other opinion leaders most likely to influence or impose their values on the society at large.