While most Americans cherish the right of free speech, they also are willing to restrict many forms of expression that they consider offensive or improper, a survey released Friday shows.

"It is apparent that free expression is in very deep trouble," Robert O. Wyatt, a journalism professor at Middle Tennessee State University, wrote in his study.The survey was presented by the American Society of Newspaper Editors during the group's annual convention.

Reflecting on the results, ASNE President Burl Osborne said: "It is doubtful that the First Amendment could pass a popular vote today."

The survey, which questioned 1,500 randomly selected American adults during 1990, found them ranking free speech as one of their most important rights, just behind freedom of religion and ahead of such rights as a speedy, public trial and owning firearms.

But when asked about protecting specific forms of expression, the respondents were less supportive.

The poll found Americans would give most protection to political speech. Seventy percent said speech in favor of any candidate should be protected all the time, compared with 7 percent who said it should not be protected at all.

But only 40 percent said they would offer absolute protection to someone who speaks in favor of a communist country; one-fourth said they would give no protection.

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Terry Anderson, The Associated Press correspondent who has been held hostage in Lebanon for six years, was honored Friday by U.S. newspaper editors for exemplifying the ideals of the First Amendment. The American Society of Newspaper Editors, meeting in Boston for an annual convention, also gave a First Amendment Award to William J. Brennan, who retired last year from the U.S. Supreme Court. The ASNE inaugurated the awards this year to coincide with its focus on the First Amendment in this bicentennial year for the Bill of Rights.