The estimable Professor Friedman (to whom I wish a happy new year) calls our attention to this survey, described in this press release. Those affiliated with the First Amendment Center wring their hands over the percentage of respondents who regard the U.S. as a Christian nation and would permit, for example, teachers to lead prayers. I’d focus on the overwhelming support for the freedom to practice one’s own religion (97% say it’s "essential" or "important") or to practice no religion (89%), though (to be sure) only 56% believe that the freedom of religion applies to all groups and 28% believe that fringe groups shouldn’t enjoy that freedom. 60% of respondents agree that "people should be allowed to say things in public that might be offensive to religious groups," up from 46% in the 2000 survey. Whatever the respondents mean when they say "Christian nation," it’s a far cry from a theocracy. I also suspect that the "fringe groups" that the respondents had in mind are not Buddhists or Hindus.
I’m actually more troubled by other responses. For example, while 64% of the respondents could identify freedom of speech as part of the First Amendment, less than 20% could name any other specific right listed. Furthermore, despite the focus on freedom on speech in this particular snapshot of the public mind, 62% of respondents strongly or mildly agree that the government ought to be able to restrict the amount of money a candidate contributes to his or her own campaign; and 64% agree--strongly or mildly--that the government "should be able to place restrictions on the amount of money a private individual can contribute to someone else’s election campaign." Equality trumps liberty here.
And then there’s this: while 57% of the respondents don’t think that government content regulation of television should be extended to cable and sattelite systems, slightly over 60% strongly or mildly support some version of the fairness doctrine, even applied to newspapers. I can only hope that the explanation for this willingness to support the abrogation of the freedom of the press is connected with the perception, held by roughly 60% of the respondents, that the news media are biased in their reporting of stories and that “[t]he falsifying or making up of stories in the American news media is a widespread problem.” At least then it would be a (mistaken) response to a perceived problem, rather than mere support for a kind of paternalism.
I agree with the folks at the First Amendment Center that we have a long way to go in educating people about their fundamental freedoms. One solution is for ever more people to sign up for this or this, and for other colleges and universities to emulate them.