A new report by the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University finds that college students don’t know much about their First Amendment freedoms, but their professors can help address that gap.
“Learning About Liberty: Facilitating First Amendment Engagement Among American University Students,” researched and written by Dr. Brian Hinote, MTSU’s associate vice provost for data analytics and student success, is available now at the center’s website.
“Research shows that most students enroll in college with minimal understanding of the First Amendment and its role in our democracy,” says Ken Paulson, director of the Free Speech Center.
“Our center focuses on creative ways to engage students in First Amendment principles so that they graduate as more informed citizens.”
The nonpartisan public policy center, based in MTSU’s College of Media and Entertainment, works to educate the public about the five freedoms they’re guaranteed by the First Amendment: protection of their right to free speech, a free press, freedom of religion, freedom of peaceable assembly and freedom to petition the government.
In 2020’s contentious, dangerous, more politically and socially aware aftermath, the center leaders say educating every student about their First Amendment freedoms is essential to their — and America’s — future.
Hinote adds that embracing those freedoms can also enrich students’ educational experience.
“The work taking place through the Free Speech Center at MTSU is critically important for promoting our republic’s bedrock First Amendment principles,” Hinote says.
“We are living through unique times in American history, and college students’ understanding of constitutional rights and civil liberties today have a lot to say about how our country will likely look tomorrow.”
Recent studies by the Knight Foundation/Gallup and the First Amendment Center of the Freedom Forum Institute revealed that about 3 of every 10 American adults can’t correctly name one of their freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. About 29 percent said the First Amendment’s rights go too far.
In his research, Hinote summarizes best practices for educators to approach and promote advocacy and engagement around the First Amendment’s five freedoms.
Paulson says the guide represents a “timely contribution to the ongoing work supporting First Amendment literacy in American higher education.”
Among the report’s findings:
• Most college students know little about the First Amendment’s five freedoms and are largely unable to describe the scope of the amendment.
• Educators should get students directly involved and invested in First Amendment work by focusing on its practical, everyday, applicable elements.
• The most effective First Amendment education keeps students at the center, embedding them whenever and wherever possible to make direct connections to their lives, experiences and perspectives.
Through interviews and focus group discussions, Hinote’s research also identifies nine sets of practices for promoting First Amendment advocacy, outreach, engagement and activism among American university students.
The full report is available to download here as a free PDF.
Paulson also talks with Hinote about the project in the video available above.
Established in 2019, the Free Speech Center at MTSU’s full resources include the unique First Amendment Encyclopedia, the world’s single most comprehensive free reference work on the first item on the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights.
The center also directs the nonpartisan, nonprofit 1 for All educational project, focusing on ensuring that every high school and college student in America fully understands the five freedoms of the First Amendment. Its initiatives, detailed at http://1forall.today, also build broad public awareness of the First Amendment’s continuing relevance.
The center’s educational efforts also include national ad campaigns, featuring celebrities sharing their First Amendment freedoms, to build awareness in younger audiences, and frequent news, analysis and commentary on current First Amendment issues.
— Gina E. Fann (firstname.lastname@example.org)