High school kids show strong support for First Amendment

This column first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News  -- the newspaper of Silicon Valley

This post first appeared in the San Jose Mercury New

Let me start out by admitting my bias. I’m a strong supporter of the First Amendment. With very few exceptions (like child sex abuse images and yelling “fire” in a crowded theater), I believe that free speech is an absolute right for people of all ages and it makes me feel good when I learn that others, especially young people, tend to agree.

The reason I love it when young people support free speech is because they are our future.

If people grow up believing in something, they’re more likely to continue to hold those beliefs as they get older. So, I’m especially pleased that high school students are even more supportive of free speech than adults, according to a new survey from the Knight Foundation.

The foundation conducted a national study of 10,463 high school students and 588 teachers to coincide with the celebration of Constitution Day, which took place Wednesday. Several of the questions were identical to those of a Newseum Institute survey of adults, which enabled researchers to compare results across age groups.

What the study found is that students are more supportive of free speech rights than adults, with the heaviest consumers of social media showing the strongest support. The study found that only 24 percent of students agreed that the “First Amendment goes too far” compared to 38 percent of adults who responded to similar questions. This is a major shift from most previous surveys such as in 2006 when 45 percent of students felt that way compared to 23 percent of adults.

The study also found that today’s students are more likely to agree that people should be allowed to express unpopular opinions with 88 percent agreeing this year compared to 76 percent in 2007 and 83 percent in 2004. There is also increased agreement that “newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of a story,” up from 51 percent in 2004 to 61 percent this year.

I was fascinated by the finding that students who more frequently use social media are more likely to support people’s right to express unpopular opinions. Among those who use social media more than once a day, 62 percent support other people’s rights to express unpopular opinions compared to 54 percent who use it just once a day or several times a week and 49 percent of youth who use social media weekly or less often. More than 7 in 10 students who read news online more than once a day support other people’s right of speech, compared to 53 percent of those who read online news weekly.

Of course, correlations don’t prove causation. There could be other factors at play, but the fact that social media use does correlate to first amendment support is encouraging, considering how many young people are using social media.

The study looked at such issues as free speech, surveillance and privacy. There is also a correlation between studying about First Amendment rights and support for free speech. Since 2004, the percentage of students who say they have taken First Amendment classes increased from 58 percent to 70 percent, according to the report.

In an interview, Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president of the Knight Foundation, said that interviews with journalism faculty confirmed that “what’s really important is news and media digital literacy being taught more significantly in high school. Just mentioning the First Amendment in a social studies class isn’t’ enough.” He said that “the flip side of freedom and responsibility is that you need to not ban digital media but actually teach students all about digital media in school. How to create it, how to navigate it and how to use it.”

When it comes to free speech at and about school, students are more than twice as likely than teachers (61 percent vs. 29 percent) to support the right to “express their opinions about teachers and school administrators on Facebook without worrying about being punished by school authorities for what they post.” The same percentage (61 percent) of students feels that “high school students should be allowed to report on controversial issues in their student newspapers without the approval of school authorities,” compared to 41 percent of teachers.

The survey also had some interesting findings about students’ attitudes toward privacy. On one hand, students are less worried than adults with 28 percent saying they are very concerned about “privacy of information you give out on the Internet” compared to 48 percent of adults.

But, 83 percent of students agree that their electronic communications “should not be subject to government surveillance or tracked by businesses.” The Knight results confirm other studies from Pew Research that, while students may not have the same sensitivity to information being out there as adults, they are far from insensitive to the issue. For youth, it’s less about privacy than it is about control. They’re more willing than adults to share information as long as they get to decide what they’re sharing and who gets to see it.

It’s customary for every generation of adults to worry about the values of those who follow but — based on this study — I’m optimistic.