Students Have an “Alternate Understanding” of the First Amendment

Middlebury College

Middlebury College students turn their backs to author Charles Murray during his March 2, 2017, lecture in Middlebury, Vt. (Lisa Rathke/Courtesy The Associated Press)

Universities should be a forum for the free exchange of ideas. Instead, they are becoming places where speech is censored, sometimes forcefully, by students. Recent incidents, in which conservative thought-leaders were prevented from speaking at college campuses by violent student protests, loom across higher education like so many tips of one iceberg. They are indicative of a widely-shared perspective among young adults that there are exceptions to the rule of free speech.

What is behind this urge to shut down speech that is viewed as offensive? Why do young people today appear to have less tolerance for free speech? As incidents of campus violence and canceled lectures become more frequent, it’s more important than ever to understand this issue and move collectively to address it.

In a new white paper, Newseum President and CEO Jeffrey Herbst argues that young generations have developed an “alternate understanding” of the First Amendment, with more students believing that it should not protect offensive speech – particularly when the offense is directed at groups that are defined in terms of race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.

Herbst identifies a surprising source for this new understanding of our basic rights, and names factors in students’ development that could reinforce it as students move from high school to college. Citing research from the Knight Foundation, the Newseum Institute, PEN America, the Pew Research Center and other sources, Herbst paints a comprehensive picture of student free expression issues that goes beyond episodic analysis of campus speech incidents. He then provides a set of recommendations for increasing student tolerance of offensive speech, and helping them become stronger advocates for free expression.

Now, when the younger generations make up the largest age demographic in America (Millennials now outnumber Boomers), it is more critical than ever to educate students on the First Amendment and the full rights it affords. The danger in not doing so, writes Herbst, would lead to nothing less than restrictions on our core freedoms.

Knight Foundation

Generous support for this project has been provided by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

4 thoughts on “Students Have an “Alternate Understanding” of the First Amendment

  1. Strange. I feel the same way about some people’s interpretation of the 2nd Amendment.
    All of the Amendments to our Constitution are important and should be upheld and defended.

  2. The First Amendment gives us the right to complain about anything. The worst dictatorship grants the freedom to agree with and celebrate the status quo or the majority opinion. Here we can call anyone an idiot and any policy stupid and catastrophic. Protecting the devil’s right to speak protects the rest of us as well.

  3. They’ve come to believe that the purpose of government is to get others to conform to their wishes, so that they don’t have to change. The problem is, someone else wants me to conform, while I want them to conform. Everyone is segregated into groups which are then pit against each other, as some groups are defined to be more equal than others.

  4. “…particularly when the offense is directed at groups that are defined in terms of race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.”

    This is what happens when you base your politics on fanning the flames of group resentment. Groups have the right to say whatever they want (with only a few exceptions), but no one has the right to shut down speech because it “offends” them. There is no right to not be offended.

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