When the going gets tough, Americans have a tendency to treat the Bill of Rights like a luxury we cannot always afford. Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, says polls consistently reveal the public’s misgivings about the very principles that define our democracy, including, for example, the freedom to burn flags and holy books. Kohut explains.
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is on a reporting trip to Cairo this week. I'm Bob Garfield. Freedom of speech, guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution, sometimes has the vilest of consequences. It permits the Westboro Baptist Church to stage protests at military funerals, assailing grieving families with hate rants about homosexuality and American apostasy. In 1977, the Supreme Court ruled that the American Nazi Party had the right under the First Amendment to parade before Holocaust survivors in the predominantly Jewish Chicago suburb of Skokie, Illinois. Freedom of speech is why flag desecration is a lawful act, no matter how it may dishonor the sacrifices of those who fought and died under that banner. And two weeks ago, freedom of speech gave Florida Pastor Terry Jones license to set fire to a Quran in judgment of Islam’s supposed crimes against God and man. And beginning last weekend came the consequences of that constitutionally protected act.
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MALE CORRESPONDENT: Thousands of Afghans filled Mazar-i-Sharif after Friday prayers, furious over news that pastors had burned a copy of the Quran.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: At least twelve people, including six United Nations staff, have been killed in an attack on a UN guesthouse.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: There’s been further violence in Afghanistan, following the burning of a Quran in the U.S. last month. At least one person’s been killed and eighteen injured in the third day of protests.
BOB GARFIELD: Some commentators blamed Terry Jones for intentionally enraging violent radicals who regard blasphemy as punishable by death. Some blamed Islam itself for barbaric notions of justice. Yet others looked no further than the First Amendment. This was South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, speaking on CBS’s Face the Nation.
LINDSEY GRAHAM: You know, I wish we could find some way to hold people accountable. Free speech is a great idea, but we're in a war.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, a perverse publicity stunt in Central Florida prompted a politician, who had spoken more than once about defending our freedoms, to float the idea of tinkering with one of the most uniquely American freedoms, the First Amendment. But in that regard, he is by no means alone. When the going gets tough, Americans have a tendency to treat the Bill of Rights like a luxury we cannot always afford. Andrew Kohut is president of the PEW Research Center for the People and the Press, whose polls consistently reveal the public’s misgivings about the very principles that define our democracy. Andy, welcome back to OTM.
ANDREW KOHUT: Happy to be with you.
BOB GARFIELD: Outlawing Quran burning on incitement grounds makes sense to Lindsey Graham. Outlawing flag burning on blasphemy grounds makes sense to a lot of people. At various moments in recent history, a majority of Americans have been willing to add at least one big fat asterisk to the First Amendment, right?
ANDREW KOHUT: At least one, and probably more than one. The most famous is the broad support that we've seen for constitutional amendments that would make flag burning illegal. Back in 1989, 65 percent approved of this. That was at a time when this was very much a political issue. It was one in the ’88 campaign. More recently - the last time we surveyed on this was the middle of the last decade – we had 54 percent favoring such an amendment.
BOB GARFIELD: Every few years, going back to 1994, PEW has polled Americans on whether they believe that, quote, “books containing dangerous ideas” should be banned from school libraries, and consistently a very sizeable minority has said, yeah, I'm down with that - book banning, no problem.
ANDREW KOHUT: Well, we get - in the most recent poll, which was only conducted last month, we get 57 percent saying, no, I don't favor book banning that contain dangerous ideas, but 39 percent say they favor this idea. And this is what we've seen over the course of the years. And now, this is akin to Americans saying, yes, you have freedom of expression, but yelling “Fire!” in a theater is just not appropriate.
BOB GARFIELD: I've noticed a kind of cognitive dissonance – I think that would be the nicest way I could phrase it – between our notion of going to war to protect our freedoms, a bit of rhetoric that is often mouthed, and Americans willing to suspend those [LAUGHING] very freedoms on the home front as a matter of national security. Has your polling given you any insight into the provenance of that kind of paradox?
ANDREW KOHUT: Well, you know, we've seen a lot of that in more concrete terms over the years since 9/11 when we've polled about restricting civil liberties versus protecting the country from another terrorist attack. We get large percentages of people saying that they think that at least some of the time torture can be justified to get information from terrorist suspects. We consistently found broad public support for the Bush administration’s using warrantless wiretaps to gain information about terrorist suspects. When we ask people around the world, what do you think about Guantanamo, most publics, certainly publics in Western Europe and in the Muslim world, say that they disapprove of this. Most Americans do not - did not disapprove of Guantanamo. When the American public feels threatened, seriously threatened, it really goes on the warpath, and sometimes going on the warpath will involve suspension of these principles that are so central to the way we think about our democracy and our nation. There’s a long record of Americans making these exceptions.
BOB GARFIELD: Andy, as always, thank you very, very much.
ANDREW KOHUT: Okay. Good to talk to you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Andrew Kohut is president of the PEW Research Center for the People and the Press.