Students and First Amendment Rights
There are five rights protected under the First Amendment of the Constitution: freedom of speech, religion, press, and assembly and the right to petition the government. But what do Fairview students know about First Amendment rights? All students are required to take both U.S. Government and U.S. History classes, but what truly sinks in, what do students remember?
The Royal Banner recently conducted a survey of 30 students, a small sample, but one that could indicate trends of understanding of Fairview students. In the survey, 100% of students correctly thought that speech is protected by the First Amendment, 93.3% thought religion is protected, 96.7% press, 93.3% assembly, and only 70% thought that the right to petition the government is protected, despite all but one of the students having taken either a U.S. government or U.S. history class.
“I think it’s really important that kids learn what their rights are,” said social studies teacher Amy Paa-Rogers. “I think that’s a really important topic in this day and age. I think it doesn’t get as much time, and it should because we have a whole long list of curriculum we’re supposed to cover, unfortunately, that’s just a really small piece of it.”
Maybe this lack of curricular time contributes to students knowing their fundamental rights, but not understanding what that specifically entails. Thirteen percent of students thought that minors don’t have constitutional rights, and 6.7% didn’t know whether minors had constitutional rights or not.
This misunderstanding regarding specifics is even more drastic when it comes to what speech actually entails, with only 40% of students correctly thinking that profanity was protected by the Constitution, and only 23.3% thinking hate speech was protected.
A similar pattern shows up when asked if burning an American flag was illegal. Less than half knew that burning an American flag is legal, and 40% thought it was a crime.
However Paa-Rogers said her students became very animated when she told her class that it was legal to burn an American flag. She said they began by talking about the NFL take-a-knee protest, and her students were not very engaged, but when she told them it was legal to burn an American flag “they couldn’t believe it, that got their interest going, they got quite passionate about it, they were riled up.”
This is notable, because 86.7% of students knew that the football players have the right to kneel, compared to the only 43.3% that knew burning an American flag was protected by the same right.
A majority of students also know that students athletes have the right to kneel if they choose to do so.
Principal Don Stensrud said if any athletes choose to kneel, he recognizes it is their right: “I think the coaches would have the conversation, I think with our rights comes responsibility, and if I’m kneeling down just to make a statement just to make it about me, then I think you’re abusing your first amendment rights,” said Stensrud. “I think if you really are doing it because you are protesting something that you feel strongly about, then it’s absolutely your right to do it.”
Despite that a high number of students know that athletes, both professional and student, have the right to kneel during the national anthem, less knew that the right came from the First Amendment. When asked whether professional athletes had the right to kneel, 86.7% correctly thought that kneeling was protected. However when asked, if kneeling was protected, what is it protected by, only 76.7% said the First Amendment, a ten percent drop from the total number who knew it was protected. Of the remaining 23.3% of respondents, 3.3% thought it was protected by federal law, 6.7% didn’t know, and 13.3% thought it was not protected, a 6.6% increase from the simple yes or no question of whether kneeling was protected at all.
The numbers were similar when asked about student athlete rights. Eighty-six point seven percent knew that it is a students’ constitutional right to kneel during the national anthem at a sport event, whereas 3.3% thought it was not protected (interestingly 3.4% lower than the number students who thought professional athletes were not protected, more on this below). However when asked about what protected students’ right to kneel, only 56.7% knew it was protected by the First Amendment, 20% less than the same question asked about professional athletes.
The 3.4% drop in students who answered that professional to student athletes don’t have a right to kneel is noteworthy for a few reasons. The first is that those 3.4% moved to the “don’t know” category, while the percent of students who knew that it was protected for both (86.7%) stayed the same when asked about both student and professional athletes. The second reason that this is noteworthy is that, because a safe school environment takes precedence over students’ constitutional rights, you might expect more respondents to think that student athletes are not protected, not less.
Whether students are allowed to sit or kneel during the pledge of allegiance was one of the only two questions asked that received zero percent “no” responses (the other was whether speech is protected by the First Amendment). Ninety-three point three of respondents correctly thought that students are allowed to sit or kneel during the pledge, and 6.7% didn’t know one way or the other. This result by itself is not all that surprising—after all the majority of students remain seated during the pledge every morning. Paa-Rogers said this issue though, is not due to protest or even lack of awareness, but apathy.
“I think most kids sit during the pledge of allegiance because there’s apathy, they just don’t want to stir themselves to stand up,” said Paa-Rogers. “It’s not that they’re protesting something, or that they’re supporting something, I think even then it’s not necessarily lack of awareness, I think it’s just not really having a passion for the idea or the thought.”
Paa-Rogers considers sitting “the worst of the three options.” She said she would “rather they have a passion one way or the other” than just sit because it’s the easiest to do.
Colorado is one of only 10 states that has laws protecting student freedom of the press, which ensures student publications editorial freedom from administration.
“I think that is a great law, it’s the balance between rights and responsibility,” said Stensrud. “Every now and then there are tough editorials that run in the paper. That rail against a decision that my admin team or myself had to make. And that’s where the human side of me is like ‘that’s so unfair’ but then I grow up, I had my moment, and then I say well that’s well worded, they did a good job of writing it.”
Although student freedom of the press is not protected nationally, 30% of student respondents thought it is protected, while 50% of students knew that student freedom of the press is protected in Colorado.
The last question on the survey, rather than asking knowledge of rights and protections of the First Amendment, asked whether the respondent thought that students should be given an excused absence if they miss class for a protest (without a prearranged absence). Fifty percent of students said no, 13.3% said they didn’t know, and 36.7% said yes.
Unexcused absences for protests would bring a variety of different problems, some along the lines of kids being out of class and unaccounted for (along the lines of why teachers have to mark students absent if they are more than five minutes late to class), or more simply, what would constitute a protest.
“I disagree that protests should be excused,” said Stensrud. “Because then do I have to choose which protests are valid and which aren’t?”
Both Paa-Rogers and Stensrud said, on the more moral side of it, that one unexcused absence is not all that bad in the scale of things, and if students protesting is dependent on how the absence is recorded, it is not as genuine a belief.
“If you want to have your voice heard and feel strongly about something, then an unexcused absence shouldn’t change your behavior,” said Paa-Rogers. “Stand up and be counted here, you know people have died for things and you’re worrying about an unexcused absence?”
This sentiment is shared by Stensrud who said if a student will only protest with an excused absence, then “it’s not civil disobedience, you're not exercising any right” and that the student is just skipping class without a consequence.
However “if you want to go out and protest and take the unexcused,” said Stensrud, “Then I’m actually proud of you, because you are exercising your right to civil disobedience.”