High school student support for the First Amendment is at its highest point in 10 years, according to a recently published Knight Foundation survey.
The Knight Foundation’s Future of the First Amendment Survey began in 2004 and sampled more than 300 high schools. Subsequent surveys were conducted in 2006, 2007, 2011, 2014 and 2016 from random samples of the same participating schools.
Ninety-one percent of high school students now agree “people should be allowed to express unpopular opinions,” compared to 83 percent in 2004, according to the survey results.
“I’m really glad that more people are understanding the importance of the First Amendment,” said Robert Walz, a BYU journalism professor and former ABC4 News reporter. “That’s kind of what I built my whole career on.”
Walz said he sees the millennial generation exercising their First Amendment rights daily, as opposed to remembering his generation only thinking about those rights once a month or once a year.
“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, Vice President of journalism at the Knight Foundation, in a news release.
Mountain View High School government teacher Robert Stoddard said he teaches the First Amendment by focusing on the individual rights it protects and by using Supreme Court cases.
Stoddard said he thinks the rise of social media brought up many questions regarding what can and can’t be said or written.
“I also think that because of this last election, young people more than ever are developing stronger opinions about government and its role,” Stoddard said. “People question more than ever what, exactly, should the government be doing. I think this is a great thing.”
The survey found students have five times more trust than teachers in the media and stories individuals post on social media. Twenty-six percent of today’s high school students say news posted by individuals is more trustworthy than stories from professional journalists, and 29 percent say they are equally trustworthy.
“Millennials trust Twitter more than they do the newspaper,” Walz said.
Walz said he’s seen millennials grow up in a time when there is huge distrust of organizations such as business, government and religion.
“I think the individual has become more trustworthy than the organizations and institutions,” Walz said. “So because of that, I see the millennial generation using the First Amendment more than they ever did before. They’re speaking out on things because now they can.”
Stoddard said he thinks high school students trust social media more because students make up a large percentage of social media users.
“Teachers are still somewhat trusting that journalists have some amount of training and journalistic integrity that will hold them accountable to finding and printing as unbiased of an account as possible,” Stoddard said.
The survey found students who frequently consume news are more supportive of the First Amendment than students who do not consume news often.
Emery High School senior Ashton Dieli said he watches quite a bit of news in his government classes and on social media.
“I think it is important that we continue to use our freedom of speech and assembly and all that, but with that, people need to also use their freedom of thought,” Dieli said.
Dieli said he believes traditional news is biased most of the time, but still thinks it’s a better source than social media.
The survey showed 56 percent of students in 2016 disagree with the statement, “The First Amendment goes too far in the rights it protects,” compared to 37 percent in 2006.
Journalists in other countries do not have nearly as many rights as American journalists protected under the First Amendment, Walz said.
“They sacrifice their lives to get that information,” Walz said. “We’re lucky in the United States that as long as we don’t libel somebody and it’s the truth, we can say whatever we want. It’s pretty cool when you think about it.”