Republicans Are Far From Consistent Champions of the First Amendment, Poll Finds

Many conservatives want to proscribe the rights of Muslims, journalists, and those who "disrespect" the United States.


Police and protesters
John Martinez Pavliga

It's not just coddled college kids and political "progressives" who espouse worrisome views about when it's OK to shut down speech and expression they don't like. Many conservatives admit to favoring policies that would proscribe the rights of Muslims, journalists, and those who "disrespect" the United States.

A new poll from the Cato Institute throws some discouraging light on the overall state of public opinion regarding the First Amendment.

According to the topline poll results (to which I received advance access), 72 percent of Republicans would support making it illegal for an American to burn or desecrate the flag. A little more than half of Republicans would punish the desecrators by stripping them of their U.S. citizenship, something Donald Trump suggested (to great and deserved indignation) a few weeks after he won the election last November.

Most GOPers recognize, at least in theory, that disfavored speech should still be protected: Around seven in 10 agree with the statement that "people should be allowed to express unpopular opinions in public, even those that are deeply offensive to other people," compared to less than five in 10 Democrats. Nonetheless, 36 percent of Republicans would support prohibiting offensive public statements aimed at the police, and the same number would ban such comments aimed at the military. By comparison, just 24 percent would outlaw offensive speech aimed at gays, lesbians, and transgender people.

Despite constant declamations from the right on the importance of religious freedom, 67 percent of Republicans favor a law to "prohibit face coverings in public spaces." Nearly half would ban the construction of mosques in their community. That is much higher than among all Americans (28 percent) and among Democrats only (14 percent).

It's also directly contrary to constitutional protections agaainst laws that discriminate against certain faith groups.

Asked how colleges should handle students who disrupt invited speakers in the manner of last week's rightly maligned protest at the College of William and Mary, 65 percent of poll respondents thought that hecklers should be disciplined in some way. But about one-third (32 percent) of GOPers thought schools should actually have the police arrest disorderly students. Among all participants in the survey, that number was closer to one-fifth (19 percent).

Perhaps most troublingly, 50 percent of Republicans say the press in America has too much freedom to do what it wants. Just 31 percent of all respondents felt the same way. Republicans also appear to be following the president's lead on a related question: By 63–35 percent, they say journalists are "an enemy of the American people." Among everyone who took the survey, those numbers were flipped.

Lefties, too, hold many lamentable views regarding the legal and cultural importance of free expression in America. Fully half of Democrats think that "government should prevent people from engaging in hate speech against certain groups in public." Some 53 percent say that defending someone else's right "to say racist things" is just as condemnable as "holding racist views yourself." Two in three believe offensive speech constitutes an act of violence, and the same number feel that college administrators "have an obligation to protect students from speech and ideas that could create a difficult learning environment."

These answers represent a frightening departure on the American left from a longstanding consensus reflected in the famous aphorism that you need not agree with what somebody says in order to support her right to say it.

Yet the departures on the right may be even more noteworthy, particularly given how much pleasure conservatives take in decrying the behavior of their political adversaries. In fact, 72 percent of Republicans in the poll said that colleges and universities are not doing enough "to teach young Americans about the value of free speech," and 90 percent think political correctness is "a big problem this country has."

But it's hard to claim a position of moral authority on the First Amendment when, at the same time, you approve of government force to punish those who speak, dress, protest, or worship in a manner you don't like.

A brief methodological aside: The Cato study I'm dissecting here was conducted in partnership with YouGov, a highly respected British web-based polling firm. For more on the war of opinions over online-only surveys, click here.