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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Teens back free speech for unpopular views

U.S. high school students and their teachers agree that people should be allowed to express unpopular opinions, according to the Knight Foundation’s Future of the First Amendment survey.

Photo: Mathias Reding/Pexels

Fifty-seven percent strongly agree and 32 percent mildly agree. There’s been little change in nearly 20 years.

Support drops to 40 percent when opinions are “offensive” and even lower when speech is “threatening.” Still, 62 percent of students say it’s more important to protect people’s ability to say what they want than to protect people from hearing things that might offend them (15 percent support).

Thirty percent think the First Amendment “goes too far in its rights and guarantees,” an increase since 2018 but lower than historic figures; 47 percent disagree.

Asked about legitimate use of First Amendment rights, 78 percent cited the 2020 racial justice protests. Two-thirds backed protests against certifying the 2020 presidential election results, but only one third think entering the Capitol on Jan. 6 was legitimate.

Only 55 percent of students say they are comfortable voicing disagreement with their teachers and classmates, writes Samuel J. Abrams, a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College, in Real Clear Education.

“While civics knowledge has been in decline for decades, a healthy majority of high school students – 63 percent – say that they have taken classes that dealt with the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” notes Abrams.

He’s encouraged that almost nine in 10 high school students support freedom of expression for unpopular views.

Moreover, the overwhelming majority of today’s high school students understand that a healthy democracy requires certain crucial conditions. Ninety-two percent of students, for example, believe that it is important to protect the ability of different groups in society to be heard. Another 91 percent hold that it is important to create a robust exchange of ideas and views, and 93 percent say that it is important to have an inclusive society welcoming to diverse groups. This is all encouraging news.

But he worries that many high school students are censoring themselves in class.

That continues in college, Abrams writes.

In a spring 2021 survey by FIRE and College Pulse, only 40 percent of college students said they’d be comfortable publicly disagreeing with a professor about a controversial topic, and only 51 percent would be comfortable expressing their views on a controversial political topic during a class discussion.

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