Originally posted at the Wall Street Journal.
Freedom of speech is a principal pillar of a free government,” wrote Ben Franklin. “When this support is taken away, the constitution of a free society is dissolved.” Imagine what Franklin, James Madison and the other Founders would make of a new Brookings Institution survey showing that American college students have no clue what the First Amendment means.
John Villasenor surveyed more than 1,500 undergraduates, and among the alarming findings: Most American college students do not know that even hate speech is constitutionally protected; half agree that it’s okay to shout down a speaker whose views they don’t agree with; and nearly one of five believe it is acceptable for a student group opposed to a speaker to use violence to keep him from speaking. Some of the answers vary by political identification, but overall the findings suggest great confusion.
Mr. Villasenor’s conclusion is blunt. “Freedom of expression,” he says, “is deeply imperiled on U.S. campuses.” We’d take that further. Given that a functioning democracy rests on free expression, what do these results say about America’s future when these students leave school and begin to take their places in public life?
It’s easy to mock the students for their ignorance. But what about the people responsible for teaching them? These results suggest that the failures of our education system are beginning to have terrible consequences for America’s civic life.
Appeared in the September 20, 2017, print edition.
Read more at the Wall Street Journal.