Gaps Widen in Students' Support for First Amendment, Study Finds

Gaps Widen in Students' Support for First Amendment, Study Finds

Since 2004, overall support for the First Amendment among high school students has increased moderately, even as differences in attitudes toward free speech by race and gender have become more common, a study from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation finds.

Based on seven nationally representative surveys of high school students conducted by the foundation between 2004 and 2018, the report, High School Student Views on the First Amendment: Trends in the 21st Century (60 pages, PDF), found that in 2011 a gap opened in response to the statement, "The First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees." On average, students of color and girls were in slight agreement with the statement, while white students and boys slightly disagreed.

According to the report, students' attitudes also vary according to their level of exposure to the First Amendment in school and where they live, with students who have taken a class that dealt with the amendment generally more supportive of the rights and protections it guarantees. As of 2018, those in the Midwest and West were the most supportive of First Amendment rights, whereas the students in the Northeast and South were more likely to believe that it goes too far. Various gender differences also emerged, with boys significantly more supportive than girls of online news freedom and of people's right to say whatever they want in public, including offensive statements. On average, students mildly disagree that schools should be allowed to discipline students who post offensive content online outside of school time, with girls and students of color more supportive of disciplining students who do so.

"Novel questions arise across school districts seemingly each week in the digital age," write John P. Wihbey and Brooke Foucault Welles, co-authors of the report. "Many of these questions have analogs to other areas of public life, with the school serving as the legal and cultural laboratory. Educators, meanwhile, continue to scramble to keep up with the rapid pace of change and evolving societal needs and competencies, hoping to prepare young adults for meaningful and productive citizenship and participation. The Knight Future of the First Amendment survey series will, in any case, continue to help paint a picture of this vital and evolving idea space that occupies the center of democratic theory and practice in American society."

"Knight Study: High School Student Support for First Amendment Diverges by Gender and Race." John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Press Release 11/20/2019.