‘Future of the First Amendment’ survey shows need for increased civics education in high school

December 10, 2018

Last week, the Knight Foundation released its seventh Future of the First Amendment survey. This survey measures the attitudes of high school students and teachers toward issues involving the First Amendment across time, including freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

High school students are supportive of the First Amendment: this year, only 26 percent of high schoolers “think the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees.” This is down significantly from the 45 percent of high school students who answered this question in the affirmative in 2006.

Despite this encouraging news, we are disappointed to learn that “only 64 percent of high school students say they have taken a high school class dealing with the First Amendment.” Yet more disturbing is the finding that this number is on the decline — in 2006, 72 percent of students responded that they had taken such a class.

At FIRE, we believe that taking a class that includes the First Amendment in its curriculum is important for all high school students, so we provide resources for high school students and teachers. These resources can impact the attitudes of high school students — the Future of the First Amendment survey backs this up, finding that students who report taking a high school class dealing with the First Amendment are more likely to personally think about their freedoms than those who have not taken such a class (35 percent compared to 27 percent).

These findings show the importance of beginning education about the First Amendment and civics at a young age, before students reach college. Although FIRE defends the civil liberties of college students and faculty, we recognize that it is important to begin encouraging discussions about civil rights and liberties during high school.

Educators looking to use a First Amendment textbook in their classroom instruction should check out First Things First: A Modern Coursebook on Free Speech Fundamentals. Written by three First Amendment experts and professors, the book provides students with the fundamentals of modern American free speech law in a clear, concise, and accessible manner. First Things First also introduces readers to First Amendment issues related to topics such as student speech, freedom of the press, civil rights, LGBTQ rights, advertising, music censorship, and artificial intelligence.