a quarter of Americans, 38 percent of African Americans, and 45 percent of Latinos erroneously believe it is already illegal to make a racist statement in public.Now why would people think that? I blame the media. For one thing debates about campus "Hate Speech" codes get a whole lot of attention — this may be the bias in favor of paying attention to elite colleges that David has written about in the comments here. But I imagine people vaguely hear about these arguments, with important-sounding people quoted on both sides, and people expelled from school and hiring lawyers and so on, and think that we are talking about actual laws and not school rules.
And for another, people routinely get fired for saying offensive things, or at least when the offensive things they say get reported in the media, and many Americans think that could only be done if the offensive statements themselves were crimes.
Because another thing many Americans falsely believe is that you have some legal protection against being fired for stupid reasons. You don't. Unless you are in a specially protected category and can make a case that your firing was caused by prejudice against your group, you have no legal recourse at all and can be fired for any reason or none. Our system gives absolutely no credence to the widespread sentiment that you have a right to your job.
Other people believe that the First Amendment protects you from suffering any bad consequences for your political or religious beliefs, which is of course also untrue. Your boss is perfectly free to fire you for being a Democrat or an atheist or anything else your boss disapproves of.
I think these polls about Hate Speech reveal, not just opinions about speech, but a widespread misunderstanding of what rights people actually have.