Flag debate shows support for free speech

The Confederate battle flag’s swift removal from the South Carolina Statehouse and chain-store shelves added urgent tones to a familiar conservative refrain: Political correctness is running amok.

For those who feel society’s sensitivities to issues of race, class and culture are muting their voice, we have some good news to report: Free speech is alive and well.

That’s our top takeaway from the Newseum Institute’s 2015 State of the First Amendment survey, an annual benchmark of the public’s awareness of and support for the five fundamental freedoms of speech, religion, press, assembly and petition.

Nineteen percent of Americans believe the First Amendment goes too far in the freedoms it guarantees. That’s still too many for our comfort, but it’s a sharp plunge from 2014, when the survey showed 38 percent of Americans who found the bedrock of the Bill of Rights unpalatable.

National security concerns are the greatest contributing factor, Newseum analysts note. When terrorist attacks instill fear, Americans are less likely to tolerate edgy expression they believe could result in reprisals.

“In the 2013 survey, we saw a spike in the percentage who said the First Amendment goes too far, likely a response to the perceived safety threat from the Boston Marathon bombings,” the survey states. “As that event is now in the more distant past, public support for the First Amendment has returned to more normal levels. Interestingly, we noted a similar dive in public opinion after the 2001 terrorist attacks.”

Fright rears its head in responses to the survey’s question on the right to depict the Islamic prophet Muhammad in cartoons. Muslims believe visual depictions of Muhammad to be blasphemous, and extremists have responded with death threats and terror attacks against cartoonists and the periodicals that publish their work.

While a majority of Americans — 60 percent — believe artists have a right to publish the offensive images, a full 32 percent oppose that right. We’re reminded of Benjamin Franklin’s oft-quoted line that those who would sacrifice liberty to gain security deserve neither.

As for the Confederate flag, only 35 percent of respondents believe states should be allowed to deny issuing specialty license plates that feature the design. We side with the 56 percent majority who would give drivers the choice to order them.

The argument that specialty plates are government speech doesn’t hold water in North Carolina when any civic club or organization is eligible to design a custom tag to be offered through the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles. Surely our state doesn’t endorse the views of all 130-plus groups whose tags are currently available.

When state officials open that door to some, it’s open to all. There’s no license — pardon the pun — to discriminate against civic groups based on their political viewpoint. It’s an all-or-nothing proposition.

The marked increase in public support for the First Amendment gives us cause for celebration. While some may feel their views are falling out of favor, they can find solace in the fact that fellow Americans still respect their right to express those views.

Take the national debate over the Confederate flag as a prime example. However they feel about the emblem, Americans can argue their points with candor and passion in the public square.

We can agree to disagree. That’s what makes America — and the First Amendment — great.

The Richmond County Daily Journal

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