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Gallup Vault: Tolerance of Free Speech Had Its Limits

Gallup Vault: Tolerance of Free Speech Had Its Limits

In 1938, Gallup asked Americans, "Do you believe in freedom of speech?" and then asked whether free speech should extend to "radicals" and "communists" holding local meetings and expressing their views. While 96% of Americans said yes to the first question, far fewer thought radicals (40%) or communists (36%) should be free to assemble and speak out.

1938: Americans' Views on Free Speech
Yes No Unsure
% % %
Believe in freedom of speech 96 3 1
Believe in allowing radicals to hold meetings and express their views 40 56 5
Believe in allowing communists to hold meetings and express their views 36 57 7
Gallup, May 29-June 4, 1938

A decade later, in 1949, Gallup posed a broader question asking Americans whether they "believe in freedom of speech for everybody," including "permitting anyone to say anything at any time about our government or our country." Half said they believed in complete freedom, while 45% thought there should be limits.

George Gallup explained in his 1949 news release that the impetus for the follow-up poll was an anti-communism riot that occurred that year at an outdoor concert headlined by famed baritone singer and actor Paul Robeson. Robeson had become a political lightning rod over his close ties to the Soviet Union and his outspokenness on civil rights and a variety of other social justice issues.

When those who thought free speech had its limits were asked to name the conditions under which it should be curtailed, 45% mentioned situations in which the government was being undermined, threatened or slandered, and 12% mentioned lies or slander generally. Another 11% said free speech should be limited when the country is at war, and 10% said that communists and Nazis, specifically, should not be afforded free speech.

Under what conditions don't you believe in it (freedom of speech)?
% Mentioning
If government threatened, undermined, slandered 45
Lies, slander, destructive criticism 12
When country is at war, emergency conditions 11
Communists, Nazis should not be allowed freedom of speech 10
Foreigners, non-citizens should be denied freedom of speech 8
Inciting to riot, causing unrest 5
Derogatory, don't believe in freedom of speech 1
Miscellaneous 5
No opinion 4
Based on U.S. adults who know what free speech means and think there should be limits
Gallup, June 12-17, 1949

These data can be found in Gallup Analytics.

Read more from the Gallup Vault.

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