American high school students are more concerned about freedom of speech and the first amendment than adults, including their teachers, a new poll has found.
The national study of 10,463 high school students and 588 teachers was released Wednesday to coincide with the celebration of Constitution Day and was funded by the John S and James L Knight Foundation.
The first amendment, adopted in 1791, states:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
According the poll:
Some 24% of students agreed with the statement that the first amendment right to free speech goes too far in guaranteeing the rights of religion, speech, press assembly and petition (55% disagree).
In comparison, a Newseum Institute survey tracking adult opinions on the first amendment showed that 38% of adults feel the amendment goes too far.
This was the first time in the poll’s history that students were more in favour of the first amendment than adults. Ten years ago when the poll began 35% of students said the amendment went too far compared with 30% of adults.
The poll also found that students who consumed the most news online were the most supportive of free expression. And those who had been taught about the first amendment were more supportive still:
Some 65% of the students who see digital news on a daily basis agreed strongly that people should be able to express unpopular opinions.
Among those who had had a first amendment-related class, support for free speech rose to 69%.
The survey follows a fierce public debates on freedom of speech, surveillance and privacy in the wake of whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations about widespread spying on the American public, first reported by the Guardian and Washington Post.
But the poll found nearly half (47%) of students had read or heard little or nothing about the story, and 10% did not know enough about it to even answer the question. Just 3% said freedom of the press was the most important protection under the amendment while 65% said freedom of speech and 25% freedom of religion.
Students with higher awareness of the NSA affair were, however, much more likely to approve of the actions of someone who exposed government secret programs. Some 56% of those with a lot of awareness approved of this conduct, compared with 44% of those with some awareness, 30% of those with a little awareness, and only 26% of those with no awareness.
The poll found students are the most supportive of first amendment freedoms when they relate to them personally. Some 61% of students agreed that they should be allowed to express their opinions about teachers and school administrators on Facebook without worrying about being punished by school authorities. More than six in 10 also agreed that high school students should be allowed to report on controversial issues in their school newspaper without the approval of school authorities.
Teachers, not so much. Two-thirds of teachers disagreed that students should not be held accountable for what they say about teachers and administrators on Facebook. And 57% disagreed that students should be allowed to report on controversial issues in their school newspaper without approval from school authorities.
But while students feel they should be free online, they do not believe other people, companies or the government should be able to do what they want with what they share.
• 72% would disapprove of others using and distributing a picture they had posted online.
• 71% mildly or strongly disagree with the statement: “businesses should be allowed to track your searches online to personalize your search results and sell you products.”
• 80% said it was important that the content they post online is private and available only to those whom you want it to be available.
• 60% disagreed with the statement: “the government should be allowed to spy on anyone’s online messages and phone calls as a way of identifying possible terrorists.”
Jon Sotsky, director of strategy and assessment for the Knight Foundation, said high school students might be more supportive of freedom of speech because they see themselves as the creators of content and not just the consumers.
He said there was a clear trend for young people to be more supportive of first amendment rights, especially online, but that major questions remained unanswered.
“Public opinion about the first amendment can be very fickle and is swayed by current events,” he said. “Fourteen to 18-year-olds were still in diapers on 9/11. The big question is how they will respond over the passage of time,” he said.