Freedom, in the United States, is not absolute (Weinstein, 1997). We are not free to murder, rape and pillage; we are not free to steal our neighbor’s mule. This abridging of freedom is usually not contested. Highly debated, however, are the gray areas wherein the people cannot seem to arrive at a generally unanimous belief, especially in the area of free speech. Although the United States Constitution seems to explicitly state that speech should be completely free, it is generally accepted interpretation to believe that it is not feasible to have complete freedom of speech (Blakney, 1998; Maring, 1998).
As a society, we seem to be in a state of perpetual disagreement when it comes to deciding how much individuality we want versus how much censorship we believe is necessary to protect the society (Weiss, 1999). The purpose of this study is to discover if demographic variances exist that could affect our opinions on this matter so as to gain a better insight into how people arrive at conclusions. In a nation run “by the people,” it is important to attempt to understand how people differ in their beliefs and values. The next section briefly explores definitions associated with freedom of speech, examines elements of the social contract that limit free speech, and reviews studies conducted on pornography before justifying this study performed on flag burning.
Regarding free speech, it is necessary briefly to examine the denotative meaning of the phrase in order to preempt confusion related to various connotations floating around. The first word in the phrase – “free” – means unrestrained, uncensored or uninhibited (Weinstein, 1997). It is important to note that “speech” is expression of thoughts, ideas, beliefs or feelings that can take many forms, including media, person-to-person conversation, public speaking, writing, music, photography and other art forms, as well as actions (Birsch, 1997; Weinstein, 1997). All of these forms of free speech are not absolutely free due to elements of the social contract at work in our society.
John Locke, David Hume, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the proponents of the idea of a “social contract,” or an agreement between the people and their government, believe that it is natural and necessary for people to limit their liberties in exchange for the advantages of living within a society. According to the idea, human beings begin as individuals in a state of nature, and create a society by establishing a contract whereby they agree to live together in harmony for their mutual benefit, after which they are said to live in a state of society. This contract involves the retaining of certain natural rights, an acceptance of restrictions of certain liberties, the assumption of certain duties, and the pooling of certain powers to be exercised collectively (Roland, 1994).
Although the theory has those who argue against it, the idea of a social contract is generally accepted in the United States. We have agreed to limit many liberties in exchange, for example, safety. In terms of free speech, we have limitations, for instance, that protect our safety – it is unlawful to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theatre – and that protect our children – depiction of a child in a sexually explicit manner is unlawful (Pollitt, 1999).
Some artists have held that computer-generated, or artistic representations of child pornography should not be prohibited (Ninth Circuit, 2000), but these extreme areas are generally not argued. However, as stated earlier, there are gray areas, or fine lines, that deserve scrutiny as to the proper course of action so as to prevent our society’s government from becoming like the one depicted in George Orwell’s 1984 – a government that places video cameras everywhere in an attempt to control every aspect of an individual’s autonomy. It is dangerous, therefore, to limit free speech too arbitrarily or carelessly (Larson, 1997; Wallace, 1999).
Indeed, it deserves our attention to discover how the majority of people will decide the future of free speech. One way this can be done is to examine potential differences among people in terms of their opinions on how far free speech should be limited in the gray areas. Two gray areas that are perhaps the most controversial are pornography and flag burning.
Pornography has received much attention already. The main topics of interest in this area are: definitions of pornography and obscenity, demographic attributes affecting community or personal standards, attitudes regarding the unique issue of Internet pornography, the impact violence in pornography has on society, the feminist perspective to pornography, and individuality and privacy issues.
This country has had a difficult task attempting to arrive at a consensus regarding the definitions of pornography and obscenity, which have more unique connotations than the number of letters that make up the words (Jackson, 1997). Some are passive, simply posing the question of whether or not we must choose between freedom of speech and equality or safety (Strossen, 1996). These people question the constitutionality and capability of regulation (Easton and Graham, 1995). Others more aggressively attack pornography opposition as viewpoint discrimination (Rosenberg, 1993; Stark, 1998).
Several studies have been performed attempting to analyze demographic differences in how people feel about limiting pornography. As cited in Clark and Wiederman, Weis (1998) points out that the social scripts used by individuals to help organize life events are internalized and affected by demographic variables such as social class, ethnicity, and religious affiliation (p. 133). This indicates that demographic differences merit scrutiny.
Franks (1999) carried out a study in which he compared variation on measures of sociopolitical ideology and several demographic attributes with variation in the degree of acceptance of sexually explicit materials. He found that people who exhibited a high acceptance of sexually oriented materials were predominantly younger, more highly educated, and more liberal in their sociopolitical orientations than their less tolerant counterparts.
Two studies performed by Bogaert, Woodard, and Hafer (1999) examined the relation between intelligence and men’s sexual attitudes and interpersonal behavior with a woman after viewing pornography. Intellectual level was examined as a demographic variable in an attempt to determine variance in how the viewing of pornography affects attitudes and reactions towards women in a social setting.
As far as pornography on the Internet is concerned, Americans do not seem to want the government to limit access to “cyber porn” in general, but do want children protected from sexually explicit material (Pollack, 1996). Advocates of online pornography cited four reasons for opposing an outright ban: such materials are protected by constitutional freedom of speech, no consensus exists about what constitutes pornography, the government cannot be trusted to censor wisely or well, and as a worldwide phenomenon, the World Wide Web is virtually impossible to control (Two Studies, 2000).
Another frequently investigated topic involves the impact of violent content in pornographic media and its affect on society. Barron and Kimmel (2000) conducted a study that measures the sexually violent content in magazine, video, and Usenet (Internet newsgroup) pornography. Specifically, the level of violence, the amount of consensual and nonconsensual violence, and the gender of both victim and victimizer were compared. A consistent increase in the amount of violence from one medium to the next was found.
The viewpoint that pornography should be limited in terms of free speech is typically a feminist perspective (Sileo, 1995). However, some believe that it has become a political issue, possibly playing a role in the platform of candidates up for election to offices that have authority to influence the decision regarding regulation of pornography (Childress, 1991).
Flag burning, on the other hand, has not garnered very much scrutiny in terms of studying the demographic differences involved when it comes to opinions regarding free speech. It would be useful to discover if peoples’ opinions are affected by such differences, because, after all, the future of the ever-evolving social contract depends upon the opinions of the majority.
Gender is a marked variable in many issues facing United States citizens today, and almost every citizen fits into one of the two mutually exclusive categories of male or female, so it would interesting to discover if such a variable is noteworthy in the issue of flag burning.