More than ever, we need our young people to understand civics.
It is easy — with algorithms constantly at play — for us to receive information and access to websites and social media that matches our opinions. That lack of perspective has caused a devolution of critical thinking. Certainly, while in our echo chambers, it is far more difficult to seek out points of view that challenge our thinking.
Some social scientists fear we’ve become lemmings, and certainly there is a growing fear that younger people — most of whom are dependent on screens of one form or another — essentially don’t know what they don’t know. And that breeds a certain ignorance.
Learning civics is key to fighting back. Understanding how the nation works (and more importantly how it doesn’t) makes for better citizens and a more educated population and electorate. It also can inspire activism and public service.
Last week, the First Amendment Center of the Freedom Forum Institute released the results of its annual State of the First Amendment survey.
The survey has been published annually since 1997, reflecting Americans’ changing attitudes toward their core freedoms — a valuable touchstone, especially in these tenuous times.
The results offered a mixed bag — some of which concerned our editorial board. The trends, while showing an awareness, also show blind spots in the citizenry.
The report’s findings revealed that Americans (of all ages) consider “fake news” more objectionable than hate speech on social media, though both are opposed by large majorities. The survey showed that 83 percent of respondents agreed that social media companies should remove false information, compared to 72 percent who agreed such companies should remove hate speech.
As the authors of the report note, the good news for First Amendment advocates is that, even with those high levels of concern and desire for action, a majority of Americans do not support the government in having the power to require social media companies to remove objectionable content.
In other good news, three out of four Americans, 77 percent, are supportive of the First Amendment and the freedoms it guarantees.
Unfortunately, most Americans are generally unaware of what those freedoms are. More than one-third of the survey respondents, or 40 percent, could not name a single freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment, and another third of the respondents, or 36 percent, were only able to name one. (Only one respondent out of the 1,009 people surveyed was able to correctly name all five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment.)
More dismaying to us, however, is that some 9 percent of respondents thought the First Amendment guaranteed the right to bear arms.
All year, President Trump has railed against the media for its critical coverage of his administration, but results show that an increasing number of Americans believe the media should play that role: 74 percent of Americans, compared to 68 percent last year, think that it is important for the media to serve as a watchdog on the government.
A majority of Americans, nearly 70 percent, don’t think that the president should have the authority to deny press credentials to any news outlets he chooses. (Hint: CNN.) Americans also hold journalists to high ethical standards, with most, about 68 percent, agreeing that it is necessary for journalists to disclose conflicts of interest to be credible.
While last year’s survey found that 43 percent of Americans felt that colleges should have the right to ban controversial campus speakers, the 2018 survey delved deeper into this issue, asking respondents about different scenarios where it might or might not be appropriate for a public college to retract an invitation to a controversial speaker. A majority, 70 percent, agreed that a college should be able to retract an invitation to a speaker whose remarks would incite violence or threaten public safety, or 70 percent. There was less consensus about what to do with a speaker whose remarks would provoke large-scale protests from students. (Think, Middlebury College.) When presented with the example of a speaker who would be likely to offend groups or individuals, 42 percent thought that a college should be able to retract their invitation — and interestingly, Southerners were more likely to think so than people from the Northeast or Western United States, according to the survey.
Overall, the results of the 2018 survey showed that even though most Americans can’t name all the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment, they have strong opinions about the specific First Amendment issues that pop up on their screens — and in their lives.
That’s encouraging. But clearly there are a few lessons that need to be pulled from the survey results, starting with some classes in civics.
The complete survey can be seen here: https://www.freedomforuminstitute.org/first-amendment-center/state-of-the-first-amendment/