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Stanford students believe in First Amendment, at least in theory

STANFORD -- In a poll of Stanford University students, most respondents said they believed in freedom of speech and of the press, but they split on what those freedoms include.

Students living in the American Studies Theme House recently did 258 telephone interviews with a random sample of registered undergraduate and graduate students. The accuracy of the poll is plus or minus 8 percent.

Ninety-five percent of respondents said that "minorities should have the right to criticize the majority." Asked about specific examples, however, 76 percent felt the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People should have the right to buy an ad in the mass media critical of white people, while 50 percent said that the Ku Klux Klan should have the same right to an ad critical of minorities.

"As you move from general statements, you find less and less agreement," said Donald F. Roberts, professor, communication and resident fellow in the American Studies Theme House. "When the principle is articulated in concrete terms, they pay more attention to the content than the principle."

What it really comes down to, he said, is most people say " 'I'm for free speech as long as you don't say anything that I disagree with or find offensive.' It's a willingness to put in 'but.' "

Roberts said he was surprised to find that only 79 percent of respondents believe in the First Amendment guarantee that Congress should make no law abridging the freedom of speech or of the press. When the questions got more concrete, 33 percent said there are some things the government should keep people from saying and 59 percent that there are some things it has the right to stop the media from reporting.

Getting more specific, 43 percent of respondents agreed that the government should have had the right to control news about the war in the Persian Gulf, while 30 percent felt the government should have the right to stop sexually explicit music videos from being broadcast on network television.

Sixty-four percent of respondents said the government has no right to stop a professor from lecturing that white people may be genetically superior; 85 percent said the government should not have the right to stop an Iraqi-American from verbally attacking President Bush.

Testing their beliefs on their home turf:

Most of the Stanford students responding to the poll described themselves as liberal, both politically (79 percent) and socially (80 percent).

Noting that this is the bicentennial of the Bill of Rights, Roberts said he thought First Amendment issues need to be talked about more.

"I want students to confront the fact that there is this incongruence and stop and think about it for a minute," he said. "If you believe in the First Amendment, you should believe in the principle of free speech regardless of content. That means sometimes people will say things you don't want to hear. There's always a cost to that, but it's a cost you have to pay."



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