Knight’s 8th national survey reveals key trends in high school students’ evolving views of free expression over nearly two decades
MIAMI — May 24, 2022 — High school students and their teachers continue to support the right of individuals to express unpopular opinions in public, according to a new survey from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More than half are also comfortable disagreeing with instructors and other students in class.
The report released today, “Future of the First Amendment 2022: High Schooler Views on Speech Over Time,” collects findings from Knight’s 8th national survey of high school students, exploring the views of more than 10,000 learners and 600 teachers. The trends documented in these surveys since 2004 provide unparalleled insights into how high school students’ views of free expression issues have shifted over a span of nearly two decades.
As the country is embroiled in debates about what ideas should be presented in schools, findings show:
- Nearly all high school students agree that people should be allowed to express unpopular opinions in public (89%), a trend holding steady over time. However, support falls to 40% for being able to express offensive ideas in public. Still, a majority of students (62%) say it’s more important to protect people’s ability to say what they want than to protect people from hearing things that might offend them.
- A large majority see free speech rights as very important to democracy (83%). Just three in 10 students believe the First Amendment “goes too far” in the rights it guarantees, while 47% of students disagree. However, a growing share of students are unsure.
- Students value the ability to voice disagreement in and out of school: In the classroom, more than half (56%) of students feel comfortable voicing disagreement with ideas expressed by the teacher or other students. Most high school students (60%) say they should be allowed to express opinions about teachers and school officials on social media without worrying about being punished, but only 38% of teachers agree.
The survey provides an important look into students’ views of free expression in the midst of a pandemic, a nationwide movement for racial justice, and a time when public schools are becoming battlegrounds over books and curriculum. Since 2004, students who are educated about First Amendment issues have consistently shown greater support for speech.
Other findings include:
- The share of students who support the right of musicians to sing songs with offensive lyrics (56%) has fallen to an all-time low in the 18-year history of Knight’s surveys, declining 10 percentage points since 2018. In 2004, 70% of students supported this right.
- Students show lukewarm support for prohibiting government censorship of news and social media. Only 57% say news organizations should be able to publish without government censorship, while 59% say the same for people posting on social media.
- A majority of high school students (62%) feel the First Amendment protects them personally. But they are less likely to feel the protection of these rights than their teachers (75%), college students (82%) and American adults overall (84%), and students of color are less likely to say they feel protected.
“Knight has surveyed American student views for 18 years, and two things are consistently clear: Students who have studied the First Amendment in school are more inclined to support our constitutionally guaranteed freedoms,” said Alberto Ibargüen, president of Knight Foundation. “The other is that free speech is personal. Even those who object to others’ speech jealously guard their own right to express their opinion.”
Part of the longest-running survey in the Knight Free Expression (KFX) Research Series, today’s findings complement recent Knight studies of college students and American adults at large. The KFX research portfolio aims to help policymakers, educators and corporate leaders understand how Americans’ views of free expression are evolving in an increasingly diverse and digitally interconnected society.
“Our latest findings are especially timely as communities debate free speech issues in schools,” said Evette Alexander, Knight’s director of Learning and Impact. “To create learning environments where free expression can flourish, school officials must understand how students feel about speech inside and outside the classroom.”
About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
We are social investors who support a more effective democracy by funding free expression and journalism, arts and culture in community, research in areas of media and democracy, and in the success of American cities and towns where the Knight brothers once published newspapers. Learn more at kf.org and follow @knightfdn on social media.