Fishy Freedoms

September 23, 1990|By James J. Kilpatrick

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VIRGINIA — THE AMERICAN people, God bless them, are a mixed-up bunch. On this business of "censorship," they are as giddy as barnyard geese. In one breath they reject censorship; in the next they embrace it. What in the name of Thomas Jefferson is going on?

The question is prompted by a poll released last week by the newly organized Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression. The center's director, Robert O'Neil, figured his first task would be to find out how the American people feel about freedom of expression. He commissioned a survey.

The first question brought no surprise at all: "Do you believe the government should be able to tell you what views you may or may not express?" Only 6.1 percent said, yes, government should have such a power. A thundering 90.4 percent cried "No'" The other 3.5 percent had to think about it.

Question No.2 was divided into four parts: "Do you believe the government has the right (1) to ban the sale of records with sexually explicit lyrics, (2) to ban the sale of records with lyrics that favor drug use, (3) to ban the broadcasting of songs with sexually explicit lyrics, and (4) to require record companies to place warning labels on records with sex-ually explicit lyrics?"

The people made a U-turn. More than half were ready to ban records favoring drug use. More than 80 percent would like record companies compelled by law to place warning labels on certain records.

The most plausible interpretation is that the people are simply being their potty little hypocritical selves. They want freedom for themselves, but not for the other fellow. Don't tell me what I may say, or read, or listen to! But then again, you know, it's perfectly OK to tell somebody else that he may not ex -

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Under the Constitution, as the Supreme Court has expanded it, neither the federal government nor the state governments may lawfully abridge freedom of speech or of the press. In a series of questions, the pollsters found that the people have First Amendment views that are simultaneously generous and chintzy.

Roughly 60 percent of the people believe First Amendment freedoms should extend to artists, film-makers, musicians, actors and photographers. Which means that 40 percent do not favor such an expansion of protected liberty. How did the land of the free get to be the land of the 60 percent free?

Even more disturbing to those of us in the newspaper business was the response to question No.5: "Do you believe that freedom of expression under the U.S. Constitution should cover newspapers?" Merciful heavens! Only 65.1 percent said yes. Have the people never heard of "freedom of the press?" Or have they heard of freedom of the press and regard it as a bad Idea?

The new Thomas Jefferson Center, of which I am a director, is a non-profit association, loosely affiliated with the University of Virginia. It will deal solely with freedom of expression, leaving other parts of the Bill of Rights to others. Broadly, it will defend the right of an individual "to think, to see, to read, to say, to sing, to print, to sculpt, to film, to paint, or to embody beliefs or ideas graphically or symbolically."

Director O'Neil, who most recently was president of the University of Virginia, is saddled and mounted and ready to ride to the defense of freedom of expression anywhere. The center draws a line at child pornography. As occasions arise, doubtless other lines will be drawn as well. But we embark with an uncomfortable conviction that a great chunk of the American people don't know what freedom is; or if they do know, they don't like it.

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