Our Opinion: First Amendment challenges beliefs on right, left alike

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Even though a backlash against it arguably contributed to President Donald Trump’s election, political correctness retains a firm foothold in American society.

The 2017 State of the First Amendment survey shows 54.9 percent of Americans believe racist comments should not be allowed on social media, 43.3 percent say colleges should be able to ban controversial speakers and 22.5 percent think the First Amendment goes too far in the freedoms it guarantees.

Taken together, those figures suggest discomfort with free expression resides largely on the left side of the political spectrum, but not all is as it seems.

Respondents who identified as conservative (24.6 percent) and moderate (26.3 percent) were more likely than those who said they were liberal (15.8 percent) to consider the First Amendment too far-reaching.

And while more conservatives than liberals understand that a free society must tolerate offensive speech, the right lagged behind the left and center where religious liberty — one of the five First Amendment freedoms along with speech, press, assembly and petition — is concerned.

Asked to respond to the statement, “Government should be able to hold Muslims to a greater level of scrutiny in considering immigration applications or status, even if it infringes on their religious liberty,” 33.3 percent of respondents agreed and 62.1 percent disagreed overall.

Among conservatives, support for religion-based vetting stood at 51.2 percent, compared to 32.9 percent for moderates and 17.9 percent for liberals.

Commissioned by the Newseum Institute, the State of the First Amendment survey has been conducted each year since 1997. While some questions remain the same, a new batch is added to the brew each year. Some of the 2017 queries were squishy, gauging attitudes rather than knowledge of legal absolutes. First Amendment advocates could plausibly find themselves on either side.

For example, the First Amendment does protect racist comments, but as private companies, social media sites can set the ground rules for fair play in their respective sandboxes. Freedom of speech means the government can’t punish you for speaking your mind, but it doesn’t prevent Facebook or Twitter from suspending your account.

As for campus speaker bans, public colleges and universities are arms of the government and cannot lawfully discriminate against controversial views, but private institutions can.

Results showed 26.5 percent of people believe the First Amendment should protect the publication of news reports even if they are purposely fake while 70.8 percent disagree that “fake news” should receive free-speech protections.

The case law here is murky — while lies are often protected speech, knowingly false factual claims about individuals can constitute libel. Some fake stories are legally actionable and others are abhorrent but constitutionally permissible.

Of particular concern to us is the rising proportion of Americans who believe the First Amendment goes too far. The survey shows this figure has inched upward each of the past three years.

Neither conservatives nor liberals have a monopoly on the First Amendment. It transcends partisan politics, and it’s up to all Americans to defend its core constitutional rights from erosion.