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Perspective | Social media and the First Amendment meet in the classroom

The year 2019 featured a series of stirring instances of teachers and high school students stepping out of their classrooms to exercise their First Amendment rights to speak, to assemble peaceably, and to petition their government. Even as they have done so, teenagers and educators have also encountered freshly emerging issues and stresses in the face of what a new Knight Foundation report describes as “the increasingly deafening hurricane of online speech.”

For the second year in a row, North Carolina teachers marched through downtown Raleigh to appeal not only for higher pay but also for adequate funding of their public schools. On the first anniversary of the national walkout following the shooting that left 17 dead in a Parkland, Florida high school, teenagers again gathered in the nation’s capital to cry out for gun controls. And students in the Triangle and Charlotte joined with thousands in other U.S. cities for the Global Climate Strike.

These protests and petitions came in the 50th anniversary year of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a Des Moines case that confirmed public school students’ right to political expression, with regulation limited to avoiding a substantial disruption to school operations. From book-banning to flag-waving, from arm bands to dress codes to required prayer, public schools have served as societal petri dishes for identifying and implementing both expansion and limitations on First Amendment freedoms.

For 15 years, the Knight Foundation has surveyed high school students at regular intervals to gauge their attitudes on and understanding of freedoms of the press, speech, religion and assembly. The Knight Foundation, based in Florida, is a philanthropy that invests in journalism projects and in communities (including Charlotte) where the publishers John S. and James L. Knight had newspapers. The new Knight report is carefully nuanced and recognizes complexities; still several findings stand out.

First, it reports that “overall, support for the First Amendment and its core ideas remains reasonably strong among high school students…” But it also observes a distinct divide among white students, girls, and students of color. When asked whether the First Amendment “goes too far in the rights it guarantees,’’ the report says, girls and students of color agreed with the statement more than boys and white students generally. In addition to the concern of girls, the report notes a “growing divide’’ between white and black students on First Amendment “overreach.”

The Knight report points to tensions in schools between students tolerant of freewheeling speech and students concerned about having “safe spaces’’ against bullying, shaming and hateful speech, especially disseminated online. Says the report:

“Contemporary students are part of what might reasonably be seen as a giant social experiment. All of the protective gatekeeping that society has carried out over the centuries to shield young people from extreme ideas, sexuality, violence and the like are functionally obsolete, at least for those with internet access.”

In a companion essay distributed along with the Knight report, Dr. Emily Chamlee-Wright, president of the Institute for Humane Studies, offers teachers advice on fostering “First Amendment thinking.” When working with students distressed by what they consider freedom taken too far, she suggests, teachers should  “flip’’ the question and ask students to consider “the unintended consequences of one’s preferred form of censorship.”

The Knight surveys find that two-thirds of high school students now say they have received some education in the First Amendment, a modest increase since 2004. And, the report says, “having educational coursework appears to have a significant effect on students’ support for the First Amendment. Students who report having taken a class that dealt with the First Amendment are more supportive of various rights and protections, and less likely to think the First Amendment goes too far.”

In saying that “applying core principles will not be easy in the years ahead,” the Knight report raises questions without clear, definitive answers: To what extent should education systems monitor and restrict what teachers and students post online, outside of school? With digital media giving students new power not only to speak out politically but also to harass peers, how can schools both protect expression, foster classrooms as orderly yet robust learning environments, and minimize bullying and threatening speech?

In the midst of the “deafening hurricane,” can educators rally to reassert and rejuvenate the long-standing public school mandate to teach students how to express themselves and become engaged citizens who understand and navigate through our country’s boisterous democracy?

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is a founder and serves on the board of directors of EducationNC.