Survey finds majority of Americans support students’ online speech rights, scholastic press freedom

The good folks at the First Amendment Center are out with their annual State of the First Amendment survey for 2011 this morning. And while some of the results are deeply troubling — about a third of Americans apparently can’t name any of the First Amendment’s five freedoms — there’s reason for encouragement.

A clear majority of respondents (63%) said they oppose school discipline for what students write online, at home, on their own time — even if the speech is “offensive.” The findings seem to suggest a majority of Americans are, like the SPLC, uncomfortable giving public school officials vast authority to patrol sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Of particular importance to the scholastic journalism community, 51% of those responding agreed that public high school students should be able to report on “controversial issues” in student newspapers without the approval of school authorities. That number is up 8% from when the same question was asked in 2000, and represents the greatest support for student press rights in the history of the survey. And while we have some road ahead of us, the findings suggest that the promise of press freedom for all citizens — even the youngest — has made significant progress in the past 11 years.

Among the survey’s other highlights:

  • Most of those who responded said they trust television the most as a source of news.
  • A majority believe it is important the news media serve as a watchdog on government.
  • A clear majority believe journalists should be allowed to keep their news sources confidential.

The survey was conducted last month by researchers at The Pert Group. About 1,000 Americans in the 48 contiguous states were contacted by phone through random digit dialing. The survey has a margin of error of about 3 percent. You can view the complete survey results here.