Racism and Free Speech


If large numbers of people believe in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it. But if public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will be persecuted, even if laws exist to protect them.

—George Orwell

“Most Americans,” said Martin Luther King, “are unconscious racists.” Indeed, while many Americans claim they are not racists, what they actually say in private—very consciously—indicates they are hardly free of bigotry.

Alvin Poussaint, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Harvard Medical School—commenting on the best-known relief pitcher in baseball, John Rocker—noted in the January 9 New York Times: “Officially, mental health professionals believe that racism is so common in America that it represents a social problem rather than personal pathology.”

This would seem to contradict a finding in a 1999 survey of American attitudes toward the First Amendment. The Freedom Forum of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University polled 1001 people, 18 years or older, from around the country.

In view of what Dr. King and Dr. Poussaint wrote about the prevalence of racism, how do you explain that, in the Freedom Forum poll, 78 percent “would not allow the public use of words that racial groups might find offensive”? Or that 57 percent said the public display of some art that might be considered offensive to racial and other groups should not be allowed?

But George Orwell was right: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

The answer to this apparent contradiction between public attitudes toward offensive speech and what people say in private is that political correctness still flourishes. Some prejudiced white Americans speak one way at the dinner table or at the neighborhood bar—if no blacks patronize that bar—and another when a pollster calls and asks how they feel about public displays of bigotry. They reserve the right to not identify themselves as racist.

Other results of the Freedom Forum poll are scary because they reveal how little regard for the First Amendment most Americans consciously, openly have.

For instance, 53 percent of those surveyed believe that the press has too much freedom. I expect that if members of city councils, state legislatures, and Congress were polled—and were told the answers would be confidential—their support for restricting the press would be even stronger.

More surprising was that only 35 percent strongly agreed that the press should be able to endorse or even criticize political candidates.

Most telling—and this should alarm people in and out of the press—the survey asked which right guaranteed by the Constitution was most important.

Only 50 percent said “freedom of speech.” A mere 6 percent cited “freedom of the press.” But doesn’t freedom of speech include freedom of the press?

A close reading of that section of the First Amendment may indicate why the public sees a big difference between those two rights:

“Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”

Keep that comma after “speech” in mind. According to the Freedom Forum, the reason most Americans are so much more willing to defend freedom of speech than freedom of the press is that they believe freedom of speech is a constitutional right belonging to individuals. But that comma appears to mean that freedom of the press belongs only to the press. Therefore it’s of less importance to the American people.

All media have been complacent—and lazy—in not explaining to their readers and viewers what James Madison had in mind when he wrote the First Amendment.

Madison described the freedom of the press and the rights of conscience as “the choicest privileges of the people.”

In another powerful tribute to the press, Madison wrote: “To the press alone, chequered as it is with abuses, the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity over error and oppression. . . . To that same beneficent source [the press], the United States owe much of the lights which conducted them to the ranks of a free and independent nation.”

None of these tributes from Madison should serve to excuse the manifold failures of the press. That’s why press criticism—such as that of Cynthia Cotts in this paper and David Shaw in the Los Angeles Times—is vital, and there should be more.

But what the Freedom Forum survey most glaringly reveals is the pervasive miseducation in our schools about the liberties and rights of all Americans—including freedom of the press and freedom of speech, from which all our other rights flow.

Barely over half those responding to the survey recalled ever having a class in the First Amendment somewhere along the line in grade school, high school, or college. Forty-seven percent said they did not recall such a class.

In a different Freedom Forum survey three years ago, only 4 percent rated their education in the First Amendment as “excellent.” Sixty-three percent said it had been poor or “only fair.” That’s why so many Americans are ready to kick bigoted John Rocker out of baseball and into a probe of his mental health.

As Alexander Polsky wrote in a letter to The New York Times (January 22): “Can we have forgotten the Soviet ‘psychiatric hospitals’ ?”

Yes, we have. John Rocker has been suspended from baseball until May 1 “for his racial and ethnic remarks.” And must undergo sensitivity training.

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