The Future of the First Amendment: “Rights for Me and Not for Thee”?

By on July 13, 2009

Note to Readers: This blog entry was authored by Noah Baron, a student at Columbia University and FIRE summer intern.

Who stole the First Amendment from our nation’s public campuses? One would imagine that the great battles fought at places like Berkeley between 1964 and 1965, when students united to oppose policies restricting political activity on campus, would have taught today’s older generation something. But judging from the policies in place today, they didn’t.

My parents’ generation needs to think back to four decades ago to remember what it fought fornot only because that generation is responsible for today’s speech codes, but also because the state of free speech today is in shambles. Judge Learned Hand once said, "Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it; no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it."

Today, I’m concerned not only by the views of older generations, but also of those of my generation. In fact, I would look like a hypocrite if I did not recognize the even more shameful indicators of my own generation’s ignorance of and disrespect for basic American freedoms.

Our politicians and policy wonks bemoan the awful state of our educational system, pointing to funding flaws (which, along with other things, have surely played a part). Yet the First Amendment is still part of the K-12 curriculum: the Future of the First Amendment, a 2005 study by J-IDEAS at Ball State University, shows that nearly 60% of high school students have discussed the First Amendment to some degree in at least one of their classes.

Given that more than a majority of high school students have discussed the First Amendment, it is scary to discover how America’s youth actually feel about "the issues." Twenty-one percent of high school students "don’t know" if the First Amendment goes "too far" in the protections it offers. In fact, there were plenty of teenagers who just "didn’t know" about quite a few thingswhether they themselves or Americans in general take First Amendment rights for granted (37% and 34%, respectively); or, for instance, whether the government should be able to exercise prior review over newspapers (13% don’t know if this is a good idea or not).

How do you "not know" about something like that? I suppose we could try to have more civics classes. Undoubtedly, that would have some effect. What we really need more of, though, is moral leadership.

In an age of instant information, ever-decreasing attention spans (how much Ritalin does the average American teenager need to get through the Constitution?), iPhones, blogs, and "the internets;" when we’re more accustomed to Googling something than looking it up in (what where those things with the pages, again?) books, perhaps my generation is simply no longer used to caring about abstract issues of freedom.

And that’s terrifying.

But even if America’s respect for the First Amendment is in decline, it’s not quite gone. The people of my generation aren’t stupidwe know when our rights are in danger. When asked questions about free speech issues which directly affected their livesthe right of music artists to use profane language, prior review of school newspapers by school officials, the right to express "unpopular opinions," government regulation of the Internet—students were far more aware of and more supportive of First Amendment rights.

Students know that our music will be the first to go unless it’s protected; that administrators would (and do) have no compunction about censoring the content of school newspapers; that our right to be generally weird (a key pastime of high school students and teenagers generally) would go out the window; and that our forum-trolling, violent-game-playing, and other online activities would be toast.

But First Amendment rights can’t survive the increasingly popular test of "I support it when it applies to me." When it protects the things we care about (such as, as I noted earlier, our music, our Internet access and use, and our newspapers) the people of my generation are dedicated to the rights promised to us in the First Amendment. Unfortunately, this is not the case when it comes to issues we perceive as being more remote to our daily lives. Where did this attitude come from? Most likely some combination of our parents, a political culture which demonizes those with whom we disagree, and a lack of real leadership. The leaders of this countryand I’m talking about teachers, professors, and university administrators, as well as our government officialsneed to remind both themselves and my generation what they fought for on their college campuses forty years ago.

Americans have to remember that when the free speech rights of those with whom we disagree are in danger, our free speech rights are in danger too.

When it really comes down to it, freedom of speech isn’t something that’s abstract; it’s not something that’s rarely necessary (though it may only rarely be invoked); it’s not something that you reserve just for speech with which you agree. And, yes, defending free speech might be hardbut, dear people of my parents’ generation, it’ll build character.