A new Knight Foundation survey shows high school students compared with their teachers more strongly support certain First Amendment rights but have much less trust in the media than educators.
The seventh study in the “Future of the First Amendment” series reveals the impact of social media and mobile technology on students’ lives and a high-level of support for the First Amendment among students. And that level would be even higher, the study says, if the First Amendment rights were taught more often in high school.
The Stats Group interviewed nearly 500 teachers and 10,000 students for this year’s study, and the questions included many “hot button” First Amendment issues broadly debated in American society.
In questions about the First Amendment and free speech, nearly 90 percent of students say people should have the right to express unpopular opinions. High school students are more likely than teachers to support public speech that could be viewed as threatening, but only at a 29 percent support rate (compared with 23 percent for teachers.)
Students also more strongly support the right of school newspapers to report controversial stories (60 percent) than teachers do (45 percent). About 52 percent of students say they should be able to criticize teachers on social media outside of school without receiving punishment. Only 37 percent of teachers agree with that idea.
But students aren't more protective of some First Amendment rights than teachers. For example, 73 percent of students don't think the First Amendment should protect flag-burning protests, compared with 61 percent for teachers. Among high school students, 60 percent agree that athletes could protest during the national anthem, compared with 63 percent for teachers and 81 percent support among college students. And only 66 percent of high school students, compared with 73 percent of their teachers, think that musicians can use offensive language in song lyrics.
It is in the areas of digital news and information and views of the media where students vary the most from their teachers. Teachers, at an 85 percent rate, are more likely to blame the Internet for causing “hate speech,” compared with 70 percent for students.
And when it comes to trusting the media, there is little of it among high school students for some traditional media outlets. While 51 percent of students and teachers have some trust in the press, 54 percent of students say online and viral videos are as equally trustworthy or more trustworthy than “traditional news sources.” That number is 40 percent for teachers.
Students have rejected local and national television news more in the past two years. Just 14 percent of students regularly watch those products in 2018 compared with 30 percent in 2016.
But in an interesting twist, students are also disengaging from news consumption on social media. The study says 46 percent of students regularly use social media to read the news in 2018, compared with 51 percent in 2016.
And high school students are less likely to view "fake news" as a societal threat. Just 21 percent of high school students in 2018 thought fake news as a significant problem, compared with 40 percent of their teachers.
Perhaps most chilling is the report’s observation that a decrease in classroom exposure to the First Amendment could affect the constitutional literacy of students. “Students who report having taken a high school class dealing with the First Amendment are more likely to personally think about their freedoms than those who have not taken such a class (35 percent to 27 percent) and disagree that the First Amendment goes too far (55 percent to 50 percent),” the report concludes. “That said, only 64 percent of students say they have taken a class dealing with the First Amendment, which is down from 68 percent in 2016 and a high of 72 percent in 2006.”
Scott Bomboy is editor in chief of the National Constitution Center.