The majority of the nation’s high school students and almost half of all high school teachers say freedom of speech does not apply to speech that is “offensive to others,” according to a new study on the future of the First Amendment.
The study, released by the Knight Foundation on Wednesday, found that 51 percent of high school students and 45 percent of high school teachers disagree with the statement that “People should be allowed to say whatever they want in public, even if what they say is offensive to others.”
High school teachers are even more hostile to public speech that “could be seen as bullying others.” The study found that 66 percent of teachers disagree with the statement that “People should be allowed to say whatever they want in public, even if what they say could be seen as bullying others.”
High school students are, like their teachers, hostile to speech considered “offensive” or “bullying”: 51 percent of students disagreed that “offensive” speech should be allowed in public and 60 percent disagreed that public speech that “could be seen as bullying others” should be protected.
Teachers and students are similarly hostile to free speech on social media: 53 percent of students and 48 percent of teachers disagree that “offensive” speech should be allowed on social media.
“Some aspects of the Knight Foundation survey indicate a disconnect in respondents’ understanding of free speech,” said Ari Cohn, a lawyer with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).
“For example, while most agreed that people should be allowed to express unpopular opinions, a significant percentage disagreed that people should be allowed to say what they want in public even if what they say could be offensive, or considered ‘bullying’ to others. And 66% of student respondents believe that students should be allowed to report on controversial issues in student newspapers without approval from school authorities.”
“I think that this points to a failure in educating students on the philosophical and practical bases for freedom of speech. One of the essential understandings inherent in our system of free expression is that speech on controversial issues is bound to offend someone, somewhere, and that restricting expression based on whether it could offend or hurt someone is fraught with peril. Educators should strive to explain and demonstrate the necessity of being allowed to offend others in our democratic society. If students had a better grasp on the history of ‘offensive’ ideas that later gained broad acceptance, we might have fewer calls for censorship when those students matriculate to higher education,” Cohn said.
The study did show that high school students and teachers overwhelmingly agree that “People should be allowed to express unpopular opinions” — just as long as those unpopular opinions aren’t “offensive” and couldn’t “be seen as bullying others.”