“State of the First Amendment” 2010: The public is smarter than those running public schools

Principals who are asking courts, legislatures and school boards to grant them unchecked authority to regulate what students say on social-networking sites during their off-hours may be swimming against the tide of public opinion.

Just in time for Constitution Day, our friends at the First Amendment Center are out with their annual “State of the First Amendment” poll, a telephone survey of 1,003 adults nationwide taken between July 28 and Aug. 6. As usual, it is eye-opening reading.

This year’s survey focuses on students’ right to express their religious beliefs in public schools, and it demonstrates overwhelming opposition to the censorship of religious speech. Some highlights:

  • Fully 75 percent of those polled agreed that students should be allowed to speak about their religious views at school events. And 80 percent agreed — 61 percent of them “strongly” — that students should be allowed to offer prayers at public school functions.
  • Fewer than one-third of those surveyed — only 32 percent — said schools should have the authority to punish students who post “offensive” material on the Web using their home computers; 61 percent said schools should have no such authority.
  • Overall, only 17 percent of respondents said the First Amendment “goes too far” in the rights that it protects. That is an all-time low since the First Amendment Center began asking the question in 1999. It continues a marked upswing in the public’s regard for individual rights; just eight years ago, 49 percent of respondents said First Amendment protections were excessive.

It is striking how badly out-of-step the actual practice of schools — and the interpretation of federal courts — is with public sentiment. The courts have allowed administrators remarkably broad leeway in censoring religious expression at school events such as graduation ceremonies. Indulging the fiction that the public is incapable of distinguishing between the official position of the school and what is clearly the personal sentiment of a devout individual student, courts have upheld the censorship of religious messages — and even the instrumental performance of “Ave Maria” — as part of graduation festivities.

School administrators who believe they are doing the public’s bidding when they censor student speech should take heed of the Freedom Forum’s findings. Schools have known all along that censorship is wrong. They should realize it is deeply unpopular as well.