Freedom of the press trumps respect for religion in a new survey

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Screenshot of Charlie Hebdo cover illustration.

Screenshot of Charlie Hebdo cover illustration.

WASHINGTON (RNS) Most Americans who know about the deadly attack on the Paris headquarters of the satirical Charlie Hebdo magazine say it’s OK that the weekly featured cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

A new survey from the Pew Research Center shows 76 percent of Americans know of the Jan. 7 attack, and among this group 60 percent of Americans support the magazine’s right to publish these controversial images, while 28 percent disapprove.

However, one in four Americans overall offered no opinion because, they said, they had not heard about the violent attack where 10 artists and writers and two policemen were murdered.

The survey of 1,003 U.S. adults was conducted Jan. 22-25, two weeks after the attack. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.7 percentage points in the portion of the report that deals only with those who said they had heard about the incident.

The survey looked more closely to see how members of this group explained their views.

Of those who supported the right to publish, despite traditional Islamic prohibitions on showing images of the Prophet Muhammad:

  • 70 percent cited freedom of speech and the press to explain their view, according to Pew.
  • Several noted that Charlie Hebdo mocked all religions. Said one survey respondent: “They’re equal opportunity insulters.”
  • Most were white (70 percent), male (67 percent) and Republican or leaning to the GOP (70 percent).  And they represented majorities of all major religious groups, as well as the religiously unaffiliated.

Those who disapproved of the French magazine’s actions:

  • Divided among people who said publishers “should respect religious beliefs” (35 percent) and those who said they should avoid offensive, politically incorrect or inappropriate speech (31 percent). “It’s a matter of respect — things you just don’t do,” said one respondent.
  • Only 7 percent would squelch publication to avoid violence, threats or anger.
  • This group includes women (33 percent), racial and ethnic minorities (48 percent) and people who favor the Democratic Party (55 percent).

But Americans’ attitudes toward the Charlie Hebdo cartoons did not affect their views on whether U.S. media will publish content that may offend some people’s religious beliefs:

  • 48 percent expect there will be no impact on U.S. news media.
  • 24 percent said American publishers will hesitate to publish such material.
  • 16 percent thought publishers would be more willing to do so.
  • 12 percent offered no opinion.