What Students Need to Know about the First Amendment

Jul 4, 2017 at 12:00am ET By Joanna Hughes

Freedom of speech has been a hot-button issue in the U.S. lately. Aside from the Trump administration’s challenges to free speech (a situation which prompted Huffington Post contributor Matthew Menendez to declare, “American democracy is at stake”),  debates over everything from trigger warnings to Harvard’s recent decision to revoke the admission of incoming students for posting offensive comments online have brought the issue front and center in the higher education space.

What better time to take a closer look at this vital principle than on the celebration of the country’s independence? Here’s a closer look at the First Amendment, along with why it’s important for students -- particularly at this point in American history.

What is the First Amendment?

Freedom of freedom of speech was so cherished by the founding fathers that they dedicated the First Amendment to the new country’s Constitution to guaranteeing its protection: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

According to US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., meanwhile, “If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought — not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”

Why the First Amendment Matter to Students?

It’s all too easy to go through college life in a bubble of attending classes, studying, exploring your new environment and, yes, partying. In other words, the real world can seem very far away. However, this is a short-sighted perspective with potentially far-reaching consequences.

Say law professors Howard Gillman and Erwin Chemerinsky in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times on the lack of familiarity among college students with the First Amendment, “Teaching a freshman seminar on freedom of speech on college campuses has made us aware of the urgent need to educate the current generation of students about the importance of the 1st Amendment.”  

Understanding freedom of speech isn’t absolute in protecting people’s right to express themselves. According to Gillman and Chemerinsky, incitement of illegal activity, defamation, true threats and harassment are not protected, and “Learning what kinds of expression can be constitutionally punished gives students a realistic sense of how speech can be regulated on public university campuses.”

In this sense, teaching the First Amendment to students can also be a powerful learning tool. The topic is anything but black and white, and studying the First Amendment helps students develop essential critical thinking skills aimed at helping them navigate these and other complex topics.

However, the First Amendment can also serve a very pragmatic purpose for students -- both in terms of avoiding life-changing mistakes (See: Harvard rescindments) and in terms of successfully making a difference through activism of their own.

The First Amendment in the 21st Century

One of the biggest challenges to understanding the First Amendment today is that we’re attempting to apply it in a very different society than the one in which it was created.

As Mary Beth Tinker -- of the landmark Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines, which ruled that students “do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate” -- told The Atlantic, “The digital age, with its wonderful capacity to democratize speech, is so important to students’ rights, but also carries new and interesting threats to students’ rights. If we don’t encourage young people to use their First Amendment rights, our society is deprived of their creativity, energy, and new ideas. This is a huge loss, and also a human rights abuse.”

Meanwhile, battles over free speech are playing out on campuses all over the country every day, with many universities adopting very different stances. The ultimate question, according to The New York Times? “How can campuses best navigate inclusiveness and debate while being mindful of students who feel marginalized, disrespected and overlooked?”

U.S. Founding Father Benjamin Franklin wrote, “Without freedom of thought, there can be no such thing as wisdom; and no such thing as public liberty, without freedom of speech.” So while parades, barbecues, and fireworks are great fun, it’s also important to remember that there’s something larger at stake. Why not take a moment today to reflect on the First Amendment, all it was designed to protect, and where you stand on the matter: Are we meeting or missing the mark when it comes to interpreting the First Amendment for the way we live today?

Read more about studying U.S. Law

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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