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THE TIMES POLL : Nation Divided on What Law Should Allow

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Los Angeles Times Poll telephoned Hope Ruiz at random last month in Leander, Tex., and asked, among other things, whether Ruiz was concerned that “we may lose some of the constitutional freedoms we enjoy in this country.”

“Very concerned,” Ruiz, 55, told the interviewer.

Last week, a reporter called back and asked Ruiz--who had agreed to expand on her poll responses--to specify the constitutional rights she was concerned about losing.

“Oh, a bunch,” she said. “Social Security. The environment. Homeless people. The government saying whether or not you have the right to die when you’re old.”

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Those “rights” are not mentioned anywhere in the Bill of Rights--the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Neither has the Supreme Court ever ruled they exist. But Ruiz’s comment illustrates how Americans are profoundly divided about what freedoms should be guaranteed under the Bill of Rights, which marks its 200th anniversary Sunday.

While many people think the menu of basic rights needs to be enlarged to embrace guarantees of adequate food, shelter and health care, about as many people feel that those rights Americans already have are being abused and could stand some restriction.

Only four in 10 Americans say they feel that the Constitution should protect the right to own a rifle or other firearm, the Times nationwide poll found--even though most people believe that is a freedom already granted explicitly in the Bill of Rights.

Fewer than a third think that published material viewed by some people as obscene or pornographic should enjoy protection under the 1st Amendment right to free speech--a right that already exists with some limits.

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The strongest sense of the Bill of Rights shown by the poll, however, seems to be admiration that the document drawn up in 1791 as insurance against a tyrannical federal government has held up to the complex legal challenges of the late 20th Century.

Nearly two-thirds of Americans feel the Constitution remains “flexible enough” to provide answers to the social questions and legal dilemmas posed by today’s society, according to The Times Poll.

At the same time, this and other polls have found a hazy public understanding of what rights are conveyed under the Constitution. Most people do not know that the 1st Amendment ensures freedom of religion, or that political rhetoric is protected even if it preaches revolution against the government.

In one notable finding, a 1986 poll by the Hearst Corp. found that 45% of Americans believe a famous tenet of Marxism, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” is part of the U.S. Constitution.

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We are “swathed in pride but obscured by indifference,” says Cornell University historian Michael Kammen, the author of several books about the Constitution. “In secondary schools the necessary material is not taught, or taught in unbelievably simplified ways, and in college no one is obligated to study this stuff. You can be a highly educated American and not have a clue about the complexities of (constitutional) rights.”

The national ambivalence about basic rights is reflected in responses to the November Times Poll, and another Times Poll taken last June. While many people think the Constitution can stand improvement--and a big majority were concerned that rights will be eroded in the future--51% said the level of freedom guaranteed today is “just about right.” The rest were split over whether constitutional rights go too far or not far enough.

People also were about evenly divided when asked if they felt that forces who want to “limit the freedoms we have” are a greater danger to the country than individuals and groups that want to “abuse the freedoms we have.” They also were divided almost equally when asked if they agreed that “personal freedoms and the right of dissent are curbed in the United States.”

While half of those who responded said they would be bothered more by government intrusion into “the private lives of citizens” than by legal protection for activities that “flout traditional family values,” about 40% felt the opposite.

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And when asked how the laws regulating what people can say and do have changed in the past 10 years, about a third picked each of three sentiments: “more permissive,” “more restrictive” or “about the same.”

Sharon Balcezak, a 47-year-old insurance company office manager from Austin, Tex., is among those who feel that constitutional protections have expanded improperly.

“I think the general population is supposed to be protected by the Constitution, but now it’s the fringe element that’s protected, and Middle America is not,” she said. “The body of work of the Constitution is good. I think it’s the interpretation over the years (by the Supreme Court) that has given too many rights to some and not enough to others . . . I keep waiting for the pendulum to swing back.”

Times Poll Director John Brennan, who analyzed the poll results, said Balcezak’s viewpoint helps illustrate the diverse ways that Americans define their basic rights.

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“There’s as much concern with the abuse of rights as there is with the lack of rights these days,” Brennan said. “While many people think of rights in terms of expansion of freedoms and liberties, many others seem to think of them as restrictions that are necessary to protect community standards and physical safety.

AIDS testing is an example, Brennan said. “Most people do not think of AIDS primarily as a civil rights issue,” he said. “They think of it as a public health issue. Most people favor testing health care workers, food service workers and hospital patients.”

Many holding the opposite opinion seem strikingly equal in their fervor, however.

For every citizen like Balcezak, there are people like Don Desjardins, 53, a retired military man from Hopewell, Va., who worries about encroachments on rights like abortion and the ability to own a gun; Stacy Kracl, a 22-year-old unemployed secretary in Freemont, Neb., who said she is bothered by potential censorship of rock music records; and Mary Ellen Wiseman, 38, a social worker from Long Island, N.Y., who worries that advancement in technology will make personal information too accessible to the government.

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“I think we may lose some of the right of privacy because so much can be found out now,” Wiseman said.

November’s Times Poll, taken nationwide Nov. 21-24, randomly split the 1,709 respondents into two samples to help compare what people know about their rights to what they think the Constitution should protect.

The poll found that in some cases people’s desires differed greatly from their knowledge of how things stand.

On the 1st Amendment issue of obscenity, for example, 52% of respondents said “the right to publish material some people find obscene or pornographic” is guaranteed by the Constitution. In truth, a publication is protected unless a jury decides it is obscene by community standards. An individual’s reaction to the material is irrelevant.

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However, only 30% said that such a right should be guaranteed by the Constitution.

“I don’t think anybody should have the right to publish something pornographic,” said poll respondent Robert Wenning, a 58-year-old General Electric Co. employee in Cincinnati. “It’s a tough subject to handle. It should be very private. Once people find even a little thread to take advantage of a constitutional right, it gets abused.”

Of six “rights” that respondents were asked to consider--the others being the right to remain silent if charged with a crime, own a gun, refuse to take a random drug test, and the right to adequate health care and food and shelter--the right to remain silent was the only one that a majority of respondents agreed should be constitutionally protected.

Opinions about the Bill of Rights varied based on many factors, among them income level, race and gender.

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For example, people with a household income under $20,000 a year were nearly twice as likely to call the Constitution outmoded than people earning over $40,000. Blacks were twice as likely as whites to feel that current constitutional rights do not go far enough. Men were nearly twice as likely as women--53% to 28%--to endorse gun ownership as a constitutional right.

Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard Law School professor who recently authored a book bemoaning the deterioration of political discourse in America, said the tendency “to characterize all social conflicts as a clash of ‘rights’ ” makes it increasingly difficult for Americans to reach a consensus on the Constitution.

“The language of rights is the language of no compromise,” she said. “Suddenly, there is this proliferating list of ‘rights’ that are all in tension with each other.”

THE TIMES POLL

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What ‘We the People’ Know

A Times Poll in November randomly split 1,709 adults nationwide into two matched sub-samples to compare what Americans think the Bill of Rights actually says and what they think it ought to say.

Respondents in Group A were asked if a particular right is guaranteed by the Constitution, by regular law or not guaranteed at all. Respondents in Group B were asked if a particular right should be guaranteed by the Constitution, by regular law:or not at all.

1. The right to own a gun or a rifle. GROUP A Is guaranteed by Constituion: 62% Is guaranteed by regular law: 12% Is not guaranteed at all: 16% GROUP B Should be guaranteed by Constituion: 39% Should be guaranteed by regular law: 27% Should not be guaranteed at all: 27% Status: The Supreme Court has ruled that the 2nd Amendment’s declaration of the “right to bear arms” guarantees the formation of state militias. But the court has never decided whether the amendment guarantees an absolute right to own a gun. 2. The right to adequate health care. GROUP A Is guaranteed by Constituion:10% Is guaranteed by regular law: 20% Is not guaranteed at all: 61% GROUP B Should be guaranteed by Constituion: 38% Should be guaranteed by regular law: 46% Should not be guaranteed at all: 12% Status: The Supreme Court has never said whether such a right exists. 3. The right to publish material that some people find obscene or pornographic. GROUP A Is guaranteed by Constituion: 52% Is guaranteed by regular law: 13% Is not guaranteed at all: 27% GROUP B Should be guaranteed by Constituion: 30% Should be guaranteed by regular law: 25% Should not be guaranteed at all: 40% Status: The Supreme Court has held that obscene material is not protected by the 1st Amendment, but that the determination of obscenity must be made by a jury based on “community standards.” 4. The right to remain silent if you are charged with a crime. GROUP A Is guaranteed by Constituion: 53% Is guaranteed by regular law: 37% Is not guaranteed at all: 5% GROUP B Should be guaranteed by Constituion: 59% Should be guaranteed by regular law: 25% Should not be guaranteed at all: 11% Status: The right is guaranteed by the 5th Amendment. 5. The right to refuse to take a random drug test. GROUP A Is guaranteed by Constituion: 17% Is guaranteed by regular law: 33% Is not guaranteed at all: 40% GROUP B Should be guaranteed by Constituion: 20% Should be guaranteed by regular law: 44% Should not be guaranteed at all: 28% Status: The high court has ruled that mandatory drug tests are permitted in jobs that affect public safety, but has yet to rule specifically on whether random tests in all: circumstances violate 4th Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure. 6. The right to adequate food and shelter. GROUP A Is guaranteed by Constituion: 14% Is guaranteed by regular law: 11% Is not guaranteed at all: 67% GROUP B Should be guaranteed by Constituion: 42% Should be guaranteed by regular law: 32% Should not be guaranteed at all: 21% Status: No such right is guaranteed by the Constituion: or law. NOTE: Percentages may not add up to 100% because of “don’t know” responses.

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SOURCE: Los Angeles Times nationwide poll Nov. 21-24, 1991.

How the Poll Was Conducted

The Los Angeles Times Poll interviewed 1,709 adult Americans nationwide, by telephone, Nov. 21 to 24. Telephone numbers were chosen from a list which includes all telephone exchanges in the United States. Random-digit dialing techniques were used to ensure that those with both listed and unlisted telephone numbers had an opportunity to be contacted. Results were adjusted slightly to conform with census figures on variables such as sex, race and national origin, age, education and household size. Additional findings are cited from a Times nationwide telephone sample of 1,439 adults conducted June 28 to 30. The margin of sampling error for percentages based on the total sample in each poll is plus or minus 3 percentage points. The error margin for subgroups may be somewhat higher. Poll results may also be affected by other factors such as variations in question wording and the order of question presentation.


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