Religion or Speech? Students, Teachers Differ on Most Important First Amendment Freedom

High school students and their teachers differ on which of the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment are the most important, but speech and religion are by far the top finishers, according to a new survey.

Students, by 65 percent, say speech is the most important freedom guaranteed, while 25 percent of students say religion is the most important right. A plurality of 42 percent of teachers believe freedom of religion is most important, while 40 percent of teachers say speech is the most important right guaranteed under the First Amendment.

The First Amendment to the Constitution is shown on the page of a history book. (Image source: Shutterstock)
The First Amendment to the Constitution is shown on the page of a history book. (Image source: Shutterstock)

The findings, released on Constitution Day, were part of the annual “Students on the Future of the First Amendment” survey conducted by the Knight Foundation.

The other rights, freedom of the press, freedom to petition the government and freedom to peacefully assemble all had less than 10 percent support as the most important right by the amendment.

“There is growing support for freedom of speech among students, however, Americans still view freedom of religion as important,” John Sotsky, director of strategy and assessment for the Knight Foundation, told TheBlaze. “Teachers and students have a different generational view that reflects changing attitudes toward religion.”

The survey also found that for the first time in a decade, more students than adults disagreed with the statement: “The First Amendment goes too far.” This year, 38 percent of teachers and 24 percent of students agreed with the statement. In 2004, 35 percent of students agreed compared with 30 percent of adults.

Sotsky said the proliferation of digital media could be one of the reasons for increased enthusiasm about free speech among youth.

“We see a strong relationship, but it’s hard to say if it’s causation,” Sotsky said. “Students are using their phones to consume news and we are seeing stronger support for the First Amendment. Digital media has freed up a lot of information.”

The survey found 62 percent of students use social networks and 71 percent read news online.

“Many adults have purely been consumers of media, but digital and social media allows you to be producers of media,” Sotsky added.

An overwhelming 90 percent of students believed, “People should be allowed to express unpopular opinions,” up from 70 percent in 2004.

Students generally opposed surveillance from government or business. But that depended on how the question was asked. For example, 83 percent of students opposed government surveillance, but when the question was rephrased to use terrorism as a rationale, opposition dropped to 60 percent.

Similarly, opposition to business tracking of online activity dropped from 78 percent to 71 percent when the question was rephrased to explain the tracking was to “personalize your search results.”