The Norton Slideshow Maker with Visual Sociology Exercises

Do Americans Support Civil Liberties?

John Grady, Wheaton College (MA)


Even before its founding as a republic, the United States was seen by its citizens as the "Land of the free and the home of the brave." It is true, however, that many of the continent's residents—Native Americans, black slaves and their descendants, and a wide variety of dissenters—found their liberties seriously constrained, if not extinguished, over the course of four centuries. Nevertheless, the yearning to be free is strong, and freedom is especially prized as a goal for all of the difficulty people have faced in achieving it. The twentieth century through the present day provides many examples of this continuing drama between expanding liberties and those forces that would constrain them. This period is unique, however, in having devised ways of surveying its population's beliefs about who is entitled to full freedom and who is not. What does this record reveal?

Beginning in the 1970s, the General Social Survey (GSS) asked Americans 15 questions about how willing they are to permit a group with threatening ideas to promulgate them. Respondents were questioned about whether atheists, communists, open homosexuals, racists, and militarists should be permitted to have books advocating their ideas in a public library, to speak in public about these views, and to teach in a college. The following is an example of one of the questions:

There are always some people whose ideas are considered bad or dangerous. For instance, some people are against churches and religion. If such a person wanted to make a speech in your (city/town/community) against churches and religion, should he be allowed to speak or not? (SPKATH)

In general, the charts above show the following patterns:

An increased willingness to extend established civil liberties to these five groups that give them access to promulgate their views. The average for all of the questions went from just over half (54 percent) during the 1970s to slightly more than two thirds (68 percent) during the decade between 2000 and 2010. Most of the increase took place during the 1990s.

Americans tend to be more wary of letting these five groups teach in a college than either making a public speech or having their books in a library, but the difference between these scenarios has narrowed appreciably over time.

Homosexuals are the group that has most benefited from the growth of civil libertarian views, and they are now considered the least threatening of the five.

Respondents were most concerned about people who would replace democratic institutions with military rule (militarists) in the 1970s. By the 2000s, militarists' position at the apex of popular demonology had been supplanted by racists, which was the one group for whom tolerance was virtually unchanged since the 1970s. In fact, a majority (52 percent) of Americans still felt that a racist should not be permitted to teach in a college.

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After you view the slideshow, answer the following questions:

Briefly describe what the displays featured in the slideshow have in common. For example, are there common themes? Common purposes?

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Create your own slideshow:

After you view the slideshow and reflect on it, create your own, related slideshow. To focus your approach, read the paragraph below. Your instructor may ask you to e-mail a link to your slideshow, or you can print it out and hand it in.

  1. Choose one of the five groups that the GSS has asked people about. Trace their civil rights history in America through library research and images. Do they perceive that they are freer to express their views today than in the past? What do they see as their major problems today? Who do they blame? Do you find their views credible?
  1. Have you had any instances in the recent history of your community that have involved the denial, or the assertion, of civil liberties? These could include issues of freedom of association, freedom of speech, worship, and so on? What were they? When did they take place? Who did they involve? Has the issue been resolved and, if so, how? Interview people who were involved in the issue or conflict and use documentary evidence—such as photographs, illustrations, tape-recorded testimony,—in your slideshow. What does this issue say about the state of civil liberties in your community?