Poll: 51% think the First Amendment goes too far by allowing hate speech and should be "updated" to reflect cultural norms

Depressing new data from the Campaign For Free Speech. No wonder those two idiots at UConn face criminal charges for saying the N-word: Although it’s unconstitutional under the law we have, it wouldn’t be unconstitutional under the law most Americans wish we had, apparently. No fewer than 52 percent in this poll thought that government should have the power to restrict the views and speech of “racists.”

CFFS asked people if they agree with the statement, “The First Amendment goes too far in allowing hate speech in modern America and should be updated to reflect the cultural norms of today.” Not only did a majority agree, but a strong majority of the benighted cohort you and I know as “young adults” supported the idea.

Are the kids about to ruin American democracy? Well, hold that thought.

That’s 51/42 overall who believe the First Amendment is too permissive of hate speech, but the age split is stark. Baby Boomers are mildly opposed to the idea (47/48) while Gen Xers are only tepidly in favor (48/43). You need to sink down to Millennials before you reach robust support at 57/35. It may be that the phrasing of the question is encouraging the division by age, though, by stressing that the First Amendment is more than 200 years old and contrasting it with “the cultural norms of today.” Obviously a young adult will be more likely to take a position that associates him or her with “today’s” values rather than “yesterday’s.”

Age isn’t the only notable demographic split on this question either. There’s also a racial divide, as tends to happen when questions involving “hate speech” come up in polls. Whites are against “updating” the First Amendment to allow bans on hate speech, 43/52, but blacks and Latinos strongly favor the idea at 69/21 and 61/28, respectively. If you’re more likely to face prejudice based on race, you’re probably also going to be more open to prohibiting expressions of prejudice.

The data on “updating” the First Amendment isn’t the only discouraging result in this poll. By a margin of 48/31, Americans agree that hate speech should be against the law. (CFFS didn’t ask for partisan affiliation, alas, so we don’t know how Democrats shake out on that versus Republicans.) Of that 48 percent who think it should be illegal, 54 percent would condone possible jail time for it. The numbers don’t start getting really dodgy, though, until we reach the question about state censorship of the media. How many people agree that “The government should be able to take action against newspapers and TV stations that publish content that is biased, inflammatory, or false”?

Fifty-seven percent agree! What’s striking about those numbers is how little support varies among different demographics. Whites and blacks are both at 56 percent in favor. Men and women are both at 57 percent. Millennials stand at 62 percent whereas Baby Boomers stand at 55. Only senior citizens, the 65 and older crowd, oppose the idea on balance at 46/50. I don’t know how to spin those results as non-disastrous except to reason that Americans are analogizing from defamation law. If an individual plaintiff can sue in civil court over false statements of fact, they may figure, why not let the, er, government prosecute people? Or maybe they’re not thinking it through at all and are simply reacting to the mention of “biased” media in the question. Everyone hates biased reporting. So if a pollster throws out a question asking if biased reporting should be sanctioned somehow, you might quickly agree just to signal how much that bias disgusts you.

But I don’t know. When CFFS drilled down by asking what type of sanction people would condone for biased/inflammatory/false reporting, 46 percent of those who supported state punishment thought that punishment should include possible jail time. I’d love to see the partisan numbers there, to know how many of that group are lefties and how many are MAGA types wanting to throw Trump’s critics in the dungeon.

One more for you, maybe the most depressing of all. Question: Do you agree with the statement, “While I agree in principle with the idea of free speech, there are places where free speech should be restricted. For instance, in universities or on social media where there is the potential to be hurtful or offensive.”?

Fully 61 percent agree, and again the numbers are remarkably consistent across demographics. The smallest majority in favor comes among men, who agree to the tune of 56 percent. If you want to make yourself feel better, you could again zero in on the phrasing of the question and tell yourself that it’s ambiguous. “Restricted” could mean many things, after all — for instance, you could restrict certain forms of speech in certain locations without placing a blanket ban on, say, racist speech. But given the results in the other, less vaguely worded questions, I don’t know that there’s cause for deep skepticism about this number. Americans pretty clearly believe that the law should be less forgiving of inflammatory and/or outright false speech because the content itself is objectionable.

And so here’s the point where we lament that our civilization is declining. But … is it? This is why I asked you up top not to jump to the conclusion that American norms on speech are collapsing. New York writer Jesse Singal points to this piece he wrote in 2015 rounding up free-speech polls from years ago to make that point that, ah, Americans have always been pretty lukewarm about traditional speech rights. I’ve been writing about polls on hate speech for years and the numbers today are really no worse than they were four years ago, when 51 percent supported criminalizing hate speech. Free-speech rights seem to be one of those issues where the public’s preferences and the political class’s preferences conflict but the public just doesn’t feel strongly enough about its views to make trouble for the political class about it. Defending the libertarian view of the First Amendment is where most of the passion on the subject lies, and since that’s also the establishment’s view the polling to the contrary can be and is safely ignored. For now.