My Turn: College students don’t understand the First Amendment

For the Monitor
Published: 11/1/2017 12:15:51 AM

‘Freedom of expression is deeply imperiled on U.S. campuses,” according to a recent survey of 1,500 college students.

The Brookings Institute on Sept. 18 released a survey of 1,500 college students who are undergraduates at several four-year colleges and universities. The respondents came from 49 states and the results are scary.

These are America’s future teachers, attorneys, professors, legislators and judges. If a large fraction of college students believe incorrectly that offensive speech is not protected by the First Amendment, that view “will inform the decisions they make as they move into positions of increasing authority later in their careers,” says the Institute.

The United States Supreme Court in June decided a hate speech case that involved an Asian rock-band named The Slants that had applied for a federal trademark registration. They were denied use of that name by the Patent and Trademark Office because it might disparage or bring into disrepute an ethnic group or race. The Slants appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In its June opinion in Matal v. Tam, the Supreme Court said that Native American groups had also complained about the Redskins name and asked the court to rule that government has an interest in preventing speech expressing ideas that offend.

However, a unanimous Supreme Court concluded, as it always has, that speech that demeans others on the basis of “race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground is hateful; but the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express ‘the thought that we hate.’ ”

The court reaffirmed that governments cannot prohibit the public expression of ideas merely because the ideas themselves “are offensive to some of their hearers.” That bedrock principle is clearly misunderstood by college students today. When they were asked whether the First Amendment protects hate speech, 44 percent of all college students interviewed said that it does not, while 39 percent correctly answered that it does.

The survey also asked if it was acceptable for a student group opposed to a campus speaker to loudly and repeatedly disrupt the speaker by continually shouting so that the speaker cannot be heard and 51 percent said that was acceptable.

Finally, when asked whether an on-campus group hosting an event is legally required to supply a speaker with the opposite view point, an amazing 62 percent agreed. That is not the law.

Free speech should not be understood as only listening to people you like and agree with, but also the ability to civilly allow for other views that you are obviously free to ignore, but not to prevent.

Next week’s civics education program put on by the New Hampshire Institute for Civics Education, N.H. Council for Social Studies and others is important because it includes teachers at all levels of New Hampshire schools. Their students become the college students who then become the future voters and leaders of our nation.

Unfortunately, current college students don’t understand the First Amendment.

Their professors are turning out a defective product when it comes to knowledge of our Bill of Rights.

(Chuck Douglas is a former congressman and Supreme Court judge practicing law in Concord. )

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