Guest column: As social media grow, so does First Amendment

Eric Newton

Each year on Constitution Day, students and teachers celebrate the most fundamental laws of our republic. This year they should celebrate Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and all other social media children of the digital age.

Why? Because, it turns out, social media are good for the Constitution. Specifically, social media are good for the First Amendment, the lead item of the Bill of Rights, etched into our national history in 1791.

“The Future of the First Amendment,” a new study being released Friday by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, concludes that today’s social media fads are good for that 220-year-old law.

As researcher Kenneth Dautrich puts it: “There is a clear, positive relationship between student usage of social media to get news and information and greater support for free expression rights.”

The University of Connecticut associate professor has done four major national surveys of high school students on First Amendment issues and has co-written “The Future of the First Amendment: Digital Media, Civic Education and Free Expression Rights in the Nations’ High Schools.” This spring he surveyed 12,090 high school students and 900 high school teachers for the latest survey.

Fully 91 percent of students who use social networking to get news and information on a daily basis believe people should be allowed to express unpopular opinions. But only 77 percent of those who never use social networks to get news agree that unpopular opinions should be allowed.

These sorts of surveys are good at establishing connections but not as good at explaining what causes what. Does social media make you a First Amendment lover? Or do First Amendment lovers just use more social media? I think it’s both.

Students using their cellphones to text, tweet, blog and Google are finding out more about the world — like this year’s Arab Spring — as well as the connection between social media and freedom.

This year’s First Amendment survey also shows students’ use of digital media for news and information is growing. It has doubled since 2006, with three quarters of the students getting news from social media several times a week.

Appreciation for freedom is improving right along with that. Students who say the First Amendment “goes too far” has fallen from 45 percent in 2006 to just 24 percent this year.

But you might ask: If the courts decide what the First Amendment means why do our opinions about it matter?

Because scholars say the Supreme Court’s decisions reflect long-term changes in public attitudes — and that’s as true for First Amendment doctrine as it is for other parts of the Constitution.

As Judge Learned Hand put it in 1944: “I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws and upon courts. These are false hopes. … Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it.”

Since young people represent the future of American public opinion, they are the real overseers of the future of the First Amendment.

That’s why we survey their attitudes.

This year not all the news is good. While more students than before understand that government can’t censor the media in this country, nearly 40 percent of them still don’t understand. While more students than before say they think about the First Amendment, most of them still don’t.

I’m afraid many teachers actually are a drag on First Amendment learning. The survey says most teachers do not support free expression rights in a school context. They don’t think the school newspaper should print controversial articles. They don’t think students should post things about school on their Facebook pages. And they mostly think social media hurt teaching.

Are young people learning as much about freedom via texting than they are via teaching? Maybe. To their credit, teachers say they think there needs to be a lot more digital media literacy education in schools. I agree.

The dawning of a new digital age in communications has dramatically changed how we consume news and information. Students are adapting to these new tools faster than adults, using them for networking, news, and now, to better appreciate freedom.

Maybe we can learn something from them.