How young people, the future guardians of our laws and rights, feel about free speech

Olivier Kamanda is director for learning and impact strategy at Knight Foundation. 

High school may be a tumultuous time, but it’s also when many of us first start to define not only who we are but also our beliefs about our community and our country. Understanding high school student views on the First Amendment, and, in particular, the essential freedoms of free press and free expression, is then vital to anticipating how future generations may interpret and support these rights.

The Knight Foundation-commissioned 2018 Future of the First Amendment survey was released this week. It marks the seventh in a series of surveys Knight has commissioned that explore the views of high-school students on free expression in America. Fourteen years have passed since Knight commissioned the first of these surveys in 2004. That was the year Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook; “Friends” aired its final episode; and George W. Bush was re-elected president.

The good news is that since then, support for the First Amendment among high school students has grown steadily. Today, an overwhelming majority of students (89 percent) support the right to express unpopular opinions. Only about a quarter of students believe the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees, down from 45 percent in 2006.

But there are three key findings that give me pause.

1. White and black students prioritize free speech differently

When forced to choose which is more important, in general, students say protecting free speech is more important than protecting people from offensive speech by a 5-to-1 margin. But black students are 18 percent less likely to prioritize free speech than white students, likely reflecting the history of the First Amendment being used as a shield for racist and hateful speech against African Americans.

2. Low Trust in Media 

Consistent with a significant drop in news consumption and engagement, students’ report low trust in news media.  Only 5 percent of students report a “great deal” of trust in the news media to report news accurately and fairly. In the absence of that trust, students are taking more personal responsibility to navigate the information landscape on their own. But they’ve had mixed success. Most students say they have come across “fake news” stories, yet only 20 percent have confidence in their ability to recognize inaccurate news.

3. Social Media’s Dampening Effect on Online Discourse

The survey demonstrates students’ concerns with how social media is affecting free expression. About half of students believe social media stifles expression because people block those with opposing views and because the fear of vitriolic encounters makes people less willing to share their views. A large majority (70 percent) also believes the internet is responsible for a rise in hate speech. As more of our civic discourse moves online, students will have to determine how to mediate the worst elements of the medium.

In face of worrying data points and trends that might threaten the freedoms that the First Amendment guarantees, we should keep in mind that a lot of students are open to being persuaded. Over two-thirds of students, frankly, haven’t given the First Amendment a lot of thought.  A third of students claim that they take the First Amendment  “for granted” and another 35 percent don’t know what they think about the First Amendment. But we know that students who report having taken a class on the First Amendment are more likely to give some thought to those rights. The percentage of students who have taken those classes has fallen from 72 percent in 2006 to 64 percent this year.

The future of the First Amendment depends on equipping students with the knowledge that they need to protect it. Data from this report provides an essential view into the hurdles that may threaten our most fundamental freedoms. It is up to us all—government, policymakers, journalists, teachers, parents and students themselves—to ensure the next generation can meet modern day challenges to the First Amendment, while preserving the spirit of democracy under which it was born.

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