Study shows students more supportive of free speech at school than teachers

A national survey of teachers and students released today offers a mixed bag for civic education and free expression advocates.

The survey of about 12,000 students and 900 teachers from 50 high schools across the country was conducted earlier this year with funding from the Knight Foundation. It marks the latest update to Knight’s Future of the First Amendment studies, which were also done in 2004, 2006 and 2007.

The results show both teachers and students are more appreciative of First Amendment rights than they were in the previous studies. The percentage of students who agreed that the First Amendment “goes too far” dropped dramatically, from 45% in 2006 to just 24% this year. Students were also more supportive of the right to express unpopular opinions, of musicians to use offensive lyrics, and of newspapers to publish without prior restraint.

When it comes to speech by students, however, the results are far less encouraging.

Just 35% of high school teachers agreed that students should be able to report controversial issues in student newspapers without the approval of school authorities. That’s compared to 51% of the general public who responded that way in a nationwide study by the same researchers released in July.

By comparison, today’s study showed that 61% of students support the right of the student press to publish freely.

In the rapidly evolving area of student speech rights on the Internet, only 36% of teachers agreed that students should be able to post opinions about teachers and administrators on Facebook without risking punishment at school. That’s compared with more than a two-thirds majority of their students (69%) who felt that way.

And perhaps most notably, the researchers found a clear relationship between students’ use of social media for news and information and their support for First Amendment rights. As the researchers note, it remains to be seen exactly how those two things are related. Is it that students who use social media are more likely to support free expression? Or are students already supportive of the First Amendment more likely to use social media. At a time when school censorship controversies involving social networks are growing by the day, it remains an important question.

The study raises real questions about why the people charged with educating students about their First Amendment rights seem less supportive of those rights than the general public. Journalism teachers have long made the case for free, independent student journalism to administrators. These findings suggest many of their own colleagues also need convincing.

You can read the complete results of the 2011 Future of the First Amendment study, including the researchers’ analysis, on the Knight Foundation website.

Tagged: Civic Engagement, First Amendment, Journalism/Civics Education, Social Networking Sites