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Freedom of Expression: Another Look at How Much the Public Will Endorse
Communication Law and Policy  (IF),  Pub Date : 2021-04-22, DOI: 10.1080/10811680.2021.1893096
Daniel Riffe, Kyla P. Garrett Wagner

Since World War II, U.S. citizens have reported overwhelming agreement that freedom of expression is a basic right. But, like the law on free expression, public opinion shows that citizen rights to free expression are not absolute or unidimensional, but conditional. To better understand the extent of citizen rights to free expression according to the U.S. public, this study examines data from an online national survey (N = 2,600) in which twenty-five types of expression were offered for respondent agreement that “U.S. citizens should have a right to….” According to the respondents, the free expression types to which citizens have the most rights were expressing political opinions, making a political speech, picketing as a union member, and wearing a black armband in protest. The least endorsed rights were lying in the news, lying generally, protesting outside a church funeral service for a veteran, using racist language in a speech, and burning the American flag. Demographic analyses showed agreement with rights to free expression was highest among younger respondents, non-whites and males. Further analysis confirmed that freedom of expression is not unidimensional, with four main dimensions underlying perceptions of the twenty-five types. These dimensions were identified as repugnant expression, historical political expression, un-patriotic expression, and avoiding compelled expression.