Let’s Add the First Amendment to the Nation’s Back-to-School Checklist

With high school teachers nationwide now in the process of planning their return to begin a new academic term, a new piece of valuable summer homework for them is recommended. It’s the survey results from the Knight Foundation Future of the First Amendment project. This is the eighth such survey conducted since 2004, and it deserves a close reading and a plan of action for when students return to the classroom.

Viewed over time, there can be a sense of optimism that both American high school students and their teachers have maintained a consistency over many years regarding the notion that people should be allowed to express unpopular opinions.  Yet that view now is clouded when they are confronted with “offensive” or “threatening” speech.  In these instances, the level of support drops below half.  And only 57% in this survey indicated that news organizations should be able to publish without government censorship.

Free Speech Wall, Charlottesville, Va.

It’s also revealing that the survey found that gender, race, and ethnicity are related to the willingness of students to say that the “First Amendment goes too far.”  As the Knight Foundation report noted, “Students in racial minority groups, women and non-binary students are less likely to feel they are protected by the First Amendment than white and male students.”

Two concrete measures can be adopted now by high schools across the country that would help promote a greater understanding and appreciation for the core First Amendment values of freedom of religious thought and practice; freedom of speech; freedom of the press; freedom of assembly; and freedom to petition governments about grievances.

First, teachers should incorporate discussion of these fundamental democratic values in a variety of social studies classes.  Where possible, a structured course on the First Amendment should be added to the existing curriculum.  The Knight Foundation has found that the latter approach can be especially beneficial, since First Amendment coursework can enhance student support for free speech rights.

As schools begin to focus more on diversity, equity, and inclusion concerns, they also should be aware that there may be disparities in perceptions about First Amendment freedoms, as the survey noted.  Consequently, any curriculum activities in this area should reflect a level of nuance that addresses the concerns of those who feel excluded.  Openly discussing these differences can be a powerful real-time demonstration of why a free-speech environment is important not just to some students, but to all.

Recent headlines focus on state and local government pressure to remove certain areas of instruction and discussion from our public schools, including reading selections where uncomfortable topics or language may be included.  It would be refreshing to see a comparable level of attention – including by parent groups asserting greater influence in what their children are taught – devoted to what might be beneficial for students to learn more about, rather than purportedly harmful.

Those who believe increasing inclusive civics education is vital to sustaining a democratic society now have a window of opportunity to voice their support for a more robust First Amendment teaching approach in the upcoming school year.

Stuart N. Brotman is the author of The First Amendment Lives On.  He is a Distinguished Fellow at The Media Institute and is a member of the Institute’s First Amendment Advisory Council.  This article appeared in The Tennessean.