WASHINGTON — Most Americans know they have a constitutional right to freedom of speech, and for a clear majority, that does not translate into allowing unlimited spending by corporations or labor unions on political campaigns, according to a new survey.
Americans oppose unlimited campaign spending by corporations and unions by a 2-to-1 margin, according to poll results released Tuesday by the Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center. The poll found 63 percent believe corporations or unions should not be able to spend as much as they want supporting political candidates, while 30 percent said they should spend freely.
The annual survey on public knowledge and opinions about the First Amendment asked about such campaign spending after the Supreme Court’s landmark 2010 ruling in the Citizens United case that removed spending limits for such groups.
"Clearly there’s a divide between the Supreme Court, which said that money equates to speech and has said so for some time," said Gene Policinski, senior vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center based at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., and in Washington. "People are obviously making a distinction. They’re not buying into that idea that at least big money from corporations or unions equates to speech."
The center works to build understanding of the First Amendment through education and information programs. It is not partisan and does not lobby, litigate or provide legal advice on such issues.
The Pert Group conducted the telephone poll June 4-11 with 1,006 adults in the 48 contiguous states. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.
In January during the primary campaign, a Pew Research Center poll found barely half of registered voters were aware of the Citizens United ruling that allowed unlimited political spending. Of those who had heard a lot or a little about the decision, 51 percent said it was affecting the 2012 presidential campaign a lot. A third said it was affecting the campaign a little and 10 percent said not at all.
A large majority of those who said it was affecting the 2012 campaign a lot or a little, 72 percent, felt the Supreme Court’s decision was having a negative impact. Another 22 percent felt it was having a positive effect.
That survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
The court’s 5-4 decision was grounded in freedom of speech. It paved the way for unlimited spending by corporations and unions in elections for president and Congress as long as the dollars are independent of the campaigns they are meant to help.
The latest survey shows that awareness of the freedom of speech is the highest since the poll began in 1997.
Asked to name the freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment, 65 percent mentioned freedom of speech. Less than half thought of the freedoms of religion, press, right to assemble or the right to petition.
The poll also found the vast majority of Americans, 81 percent, believe the First Amendment does not go too far in the rights it guarantees. In the same survey conducted after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, that number was 49 percent.
This year’s survey also found a majority of Americans, 59 percent, do not believe the government should be allowed to take control of the Internet or limit access to social media and Web outlets in the event of a national emergency.
Still, Policinski said the survey results are a red flag for First Amendment proponents.
"It tells me there isn’t a great deal of knowledge and depth about those freedoms, and we’re one terrorist attack or one major incident from a lot of people saying, ‘We’ve got to surrender some freedom in the hope of getting security,’" he said. "But I think that’s a very dangerous place to be."