High School Student Support for First Amendment at Highest Level in a Decade

Press Release – John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

MIAMI – Feb. 7, 2017 – As debates around free speech, censorship and public trust in media continue to intensify, a new survey shows that high school student support for the First Amendment is the highest it has been in the last 10 years.

Released today, the national study of 11,998 high school students and 726 teachers is the sixth in a series of national surveys of high school students and teachers commissioned by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation over the last 10 years. It holds important implications for the future of the First Amendment. It also provides insights to journalists and news organizations as they explore ways to increase audience engagement and address issues with public trust.

“To safeguard First Amendment freedoms, it is essential that we understand the views of the future guardians of our rights and laws,” said Jon Sotsky, Knight Foundation director for strategy and assessment.

Ninety-one percent of high school students now agree that “people should be allowed to express unpopular opinions” compared with 83 percent who held that opinion in 2004. The report suggests that students who more frequently consume news and actively engage with it on social media are also the ones who are most supportive of First Amendment rights.

Students also weighed in on journalism and the First Amendment. Most (65 percent) believe that all individuals should have the same rights as professional journalists to document and publish information. These beliefs may relate to their attitudes about trust. More than a quarter of students (26 percent) say that news posted by everyday individuals is more trustworthy than stories from professional journalists, and 29 percent say news from journalists and individuals is equally trustworthy. In contrast, only 11 percent of teachers said that posts from individuals are more trustworthy.

“The report reveals how student perspectives are changing in a new media environment and opens opportunities for educators, journalists and defenders of the First Amendment to anticipate and address the challenges that may affect our most fundamental rights,” said Jennifer Preston, Knight Foundation vice president for journalism.

Other key study findings include:

While high school students express overwhelming support for the First Amendment there are some exceptions. Students took issue with support for free speech when it comes to offensive words and bullying. Only half (45 percent) agree that people should be able to say what they want if it offends others and even fewer students (36 percent) agree that speech should not be limited even if it could be considered bullying.

Greater news consumption aligns with more support for the First Amendment: First Amendment support is higher among students who consume news more frequently. For example, 62 percent of students who access news on mobile devices strongly agree that people should be allowed to express unpopular opinions compared with 52 percent among students who do not use mobile devices for news. Similarly, 69 percent of students who read print news expressed strong support for the First Amendment compared to 57 percent who never read print news.
Social media and news go hand in hand with First Amendment support: Seventy-one percent of students who actively engage with the news on social media—discussing news with others, commenting on news stories, posting links to news stories—expressed strong support for the First Amendment compared to 56 percent of those who never actively engage with the news on social media.

Students are less concerned about the privacy of information they put online than adults: Only 31 percent of students were very concerned about the privacy of information they put online. This compares to 65 percent of adults, as reported by a 2016 Pew Research Center study.

Individuals can be news providers, too: Upon encountering a news event, 64 percent of students said they would likely document it using technology, such as their cellphone to post the event on social media; this compares with 27 percent of teachers. In circumstances involving police, 69 percent of students believe that citizens should be allowed to take photos or videos of an event as long as they don’t interfere with what the police are doing. This was true across different racial and ethnic demographics.

Most teachers do not support free expression for students creating content about their schools. In a generational divide, the majority of teachers disagree that First Amendment rights should apply to school activities. For example, 61 percent of teachers believe that students should not be allowed to report on controversial issues in student newspapers without the approval of school authorities and 66 percent say that students should not be allowed to express their opinions about teachers and school administrators on Facebook without penalty.

Students rely heavily on mobile devices and social media for news, compared to adults: Among high school students, 51 percent said they use social media to get news, while, according to a Pew Research report, only 18 percent of adults do.

“This year’s study paints a very favorable picture of the future of the First Amendment. Today’s high school students are more supportive of free expression rights than any we’ve surveyed in the past. The most supportive students are also heavy news and digital media consumers, those that regularly see First Amendment freedoms play out as producers or consumers of information,” said Kenneth Dautrich, author of the report and president of The Stats Group.

On Feb. 15, 2017 from 1–2 p.m. ET, Knight Foundation will host a Twitter chat to discuss some of the issues around free speech and freedom of the press brought to light in the report. Follow #fofa to take part in the discussion.

Knight’s first Future of the First Amendment Survey was conducted in 2004, sampling more than 300 high schools. Subsequent surveys have been conducted in 2006, 2007, 2011, 2014 and 2016 from random samples of the schools that participated in 2004. For more on the Future of the First Amendment Survey, visit http://kng.ht/fofa.


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