Commentary by Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
A new study has found that free speech in America may be on its way to becoming just another phrase in a text book as a majority of Americans now admit that they keep silent rather than speak out of fear of reprisals.
The Cato Institute has released a new national poll of 2,300 U.S. adults and found that 71 percent believe political correctness has silenced important discussions that society needs to have.
A solid majority of Americans (59%) say they are now keeping their political beliefs to themselves with the vast majority of Republicans ( 73%) and independents (58%) doing so. Conversely, only a slim majority of Democrats (53%) feel the same and are not as inclined to self-censor.
There is also quite a bit of ambiguity in America’s view of offensive speech and whether or not it should be allowed. Even though 59 percent of Americans think people should be allowed to express unpopular opinions, including those that are deeply offensive, large majorities are more than willing to punish those who do so.
For example, 53 percent of Republicans say people who burn the flag should be stripped of their citizenship and another 65 percent say NFL players who kneel during the National Anthem should be fired.
Democrats are equally conflicted with 51 percent supporting a law that forces Americans to use transgendered people’s preferred pronouns and 58 percent believe employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
This ambiguity could be due to an inability to define exactly what kind of speech is hateful or simply a political opinion.
For example, 59 percent of liberals say it’s hate speech to say transgender people have a mental disorder; only 17% of conservatives agree.
Thirty-nine percent of conservatives believe it’s hate speech to say the police are racist; only 17% of liberals agree.
Eighty percent of liberals say it’s hateful or offensive to say illegal immigrants should be deported; only 36% of conservatives agree.
Ninety percent of liberals say it’s hateful or offensive to say homosexuality is a sin, while 47% of conservatives agree.
Even though Americans oppose (59%) outright bans on public hate speech, that doesn’t mean they think hate speech is acceptable. An overwhelming majority (79%) say it’s “morally unacceptable” to say offensive things about racial or religious groups.
The Cato survey also found that Americans are very much against forcing bakers and photographers to provide services to same-sex weddings – but they do believe businesses should serve LGBT customers.
A plurality (50%) of Americans say that businesses should be required to “provide services to gay and lesbian people,” even if doing so violates the business owners’ religious beliefs; but 68% say a baker should not be required to provide a special-order wedding cake for a same-sex wedding if doing so violates their religious convictions.
In other words, a bakery should sell cupcakes to a same sex couple, but not be forced to bake their wedding cake.
And if they refuse to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, two-thirds (66%) say nothing should happen to that bakery.
In spite of the overwhelming media coverage of these types of cases, only a fifth (20%) of Americans say they would boycott the bakery and just 22 percent think government should sanction the bakery in some way, such as fining the bakery (12%), requiring an apology (10%), issuing a warning (8%), taking away their business license (6%), or sending the baker to jail (1%).
As for free speech on campus, two-thirds of Americans (66%) say colleges and universities aren’t doing enough to teach young Americans today about the value of free speech. Sixty-five percent believe colleges should expose students to “all types of viewpoints even if they are offensive or biased against certain groups.”
The poll also found a wide disparity between Black, Hispanic and White Americans on how free speech operates.
For example, blacks (59%) and Hispanics (49%) are much more likely than whites (34%) to think free speech does more to protect majority opinions than minority viewpoints.
Sixty-five percent of blacks and 61 percent of Hispanics think supporting a person’s right to say racist things is as bad as holding racist views yourself.
Hispanics (62%) and blacks (59%) say people who don’t respect others don’t deserve the right of free speech while only 36 percent of whites agree.
The three groups are also unable to agree on whether or not hate speech is an act of violence. Seventy-five percent of blacks and seventy-two percent of Hispanics believe it is but only 46 percent of whites believe this.
Where they do agree, however, is that it would be very difficult to ban hate speech because no one seems to agree on just what it really is.