Student support for First Amendment rights surpasses adult support, survey shows

A new Knight Foundation survey has found that, for the first time in a decade, high school students are more supportive of First Amendment rights than adults. Youth support of the amendment was even higher among students who studied the U.S. Constitution in school.

The Future of the First Amendment Survey, conducted every 10 years and sponsored by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, shows that only 24 percent of students agree that the First Amendment “goes too far” in the rights it guarantees, compared to 38 percent of adults. The national study of 10,463 high school students and 588 teachers was released Wednesday to coincide with the celebration of Constitution Day.

The study also shows 61 percent of students agree that they should be allowed to report on controversial issues in their school newspaper without prior review, compared to only 41 percent of teachers who agree. But Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president at the Knight Foundation, said there has always been a disagreement between students, teachers and administrators in what “level of freedom” the media should have.

“Some of us believe that you can’t really teach the First Amendment if you won’t allow the First Amendment,” Newton said. “How can you learn about the rights and responsibilities involved if you’re not allowed to try?”

In regard to free expression on social media, 61 percent said they should be allowed to express their opinions toward teachers and school administrators on Facebook without having to worry about consequences from the administration. Only 29 percent of teachers agreed with this statement. The extent of schools’ authority to punish off-campus speech on social media is a source of continuing dispute and uncertainty in the courts.

Of the students surveyed, a majority said they consume news and information through digital devices and most said they support the expression of unpopular opinions, both of which are at an all-time high, according to the results.

Additionally, the survey found 65 percent of students who access digital media daily support the right to express unpopular opinions, but the percentage increased to 69 when the students had also taken a class related to the First Amendment.

“So the students who are best off of all, in terms of appreciating and supporting the First Amendment, are students that are heavy digital media users and also have had First Amendment, media or journalism classes,” Newton said.

The survey also found that students are in favor of less government surveillance and that businesses should not engage in tracking online activity. However, 48 percent of adults said they were “very concerned” about the privacy of information they publish online, compared with 28 percent of students.

Newton said one of the key factors in the rise in concern for the First Amendment can be credited to technology. This factor gives the students, especially in classroom settings, direct access to a multitude of sources of information.

“It isn’t until they take the actual classes, in this case their media classes,” Newton said, “that students get to see what’s under the hood in terms of the actual First Amendment and what it means.”

Contact SPLC staff writer Michael Bragg by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 119.