The concept of free speech dates to the 5th century B.C. in ancient Greece and was codified in America’s founding documents on Dec. 15, 1791, with the ratification of the Bill of Rights. The 45-word First Amendment prohibited Congress from “abridging freedom of speech, or of the press,” and has been long understood to include any branch of government.
James Madison, the drafter of the first 10 constitutional amendments, originally drafted a more fiery version of the First Amendment, one that included its underlying rationale: “The people shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak, to write, or to publish their sentiments; and the freedom of the press, as one of the great bulwarks of liberty, shall be inviolable.”
“Inviolable” is a powerful word, notwithstanding the fact that the right to speak and write freely has always come with various limitations. They range from libel and slander laws to national security secrets, obscenity statutes, and the notorious analogy popularized by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. of “falsely shouting ‘fire!’ in a theater and causing panic.”
Republican voters (74%) and independents (61%) believe speech should be legal “under any circumstances, while Democrats are almost evenly divided. A bare majority of Democrats (53%) say speech should be legal under any circumstances, while 47% say it should be legal “only under certain circumstances.”
Nearly one-third of Democratic voters (34%) say Americans have “too much freedom.” This compared to 14.6% of Republicans. Republicans were most likely to say Americans have too little freedom (46%), while only 22% of Democrats feel that way. Independents were in the middle in both categories.
Although majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and independents agree the news media should be able to report stories they believe are in the national interest, this consensus shifts when it comes to social media censorship. A majority of Democrats (52%) approve of the government censoring social media content under the rubric of protecting national security. Among Republicans and independents, this percentage is only one-third.
Poll respondents were read this statement: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Only 31% of Democratic voters “strongly agreed” with that sentiment, compared to 51% of Republicans.
Fully three-fourths of Democrats believe government has a responsibility to limit “hateful” social media posts, while Republicans are more split, with 50% believing the government has a responsibility to restrict hateful posts. (Independents, once again, are in the middle.)
Democrats are significantly more likely than Republicans to favor stifling the free speech rights of political extremists. Also, Republicans don’t vary by the group: Only about half of GOP voters favor censorship — whether asked about the Ku Klux Klan, Nazis, or the Communist Party.
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