There was a time in this country's history when free speech was truly dangerous.
Consider the courage of the original signers of the Declaration of Independence. By subscribing to such a revolutionary document, they knew they were putting their lives and their honor at risk. And in fact, five were captured and tortured by the British as traitors; nine died in the War of Independence; and the homes of at least 12 of the 56 were destroyed.
They knew the risks. Congress didn't distribute signed copies of the Declaration until Jan. 18, 1777, giving the signers some cover until after Continental army victories at Trenton and Princeton.
Americans today rarely see free speech in a heroic light. In fact, the First Amendment Center's new State of the First Amendment Survey suggests we are a nation that sometimes loses sight of its most fundamental freedoms.
Respondents to the survey, which was conducted this spring by the University of Connecticut's Center for Survey Research & Analysis, embrace the ideals of the First Amendment but have reservations about the reality.
Fifty-one percent said the press has too much freedom to do what it wants. A year ago, a similar number, 53 percent, also said the news media had excessive freedom.
Fifty-one percent said art should not be placed in public places if it may offend some members of the community.
Forty percent said musicians should not be allowed to sing offensive songs in public.
Sixty-seven percent said that public remarks offensive to racial groups should not be allowed; 36 percent would support a law that banned such speech.
Fifty-three percent said that public speech that offends members of a religious group should not be allowed.
Fifty-four percent think the government should be involved in rating entertainment programs that are shown on television.
Three-quarters of the respondents believe that violence on television and in video games and music lyrics contributes to violence in real life. Eighty-three percent think violence on television contributes to violence in real life; 74 percent think violent video games do the same, and 72 percent think violent music lyrics are to blame.
One of the striking things about the survey is the significant percentage of Americans who are ready to ban expression that currently is protected by the Constitution.
For example, 84 percent said that people should not be allowed to burn the American flag in an act of political protest. In 1989, the Supreme Court upheld flag-burning as a constitutionally protected exercise in free speech.
The survey also suggests that a sizable number of Americans believe there's a threshold for freedom of religion. One respondent in five said that freedom to worship "was never meant to apply to religious groups that the majority of people consider extreme or fringe." Thirty-one percent said a group should not be allowed to hold a rally for a cause or an issue if it offends others in the community.
Most surprising is the finding that Americans are apparently becoming reluctant to offend. The issue stretches far beyond being a simple matter of political correctness. It's about embracing civility at the cost of freedom.
Thomas Jefferson and the rest of the co-signers of the Declaration of Independence probably never would have envisioned the likes of today's popular culture.
But while the appeal of Marilyn Manson, Quentin Tarantino and "South Park" probably would have escaped them, those original American rebels clearly understood what freedom means.
They recognized that the right to express unpopular opinions and provocative ideas is the very cornerstone of our democracy.
As we again celebrate our nation's birth, there is no better time to remember the founders' mission — or their message.
Ken Paulson is executive director of the First Amendment Center and senior vice president of The Freedom Forum.