There’s a right way to teach the First Amendment, and protect it

Emily Chamlee-Wright
Nov 20 · 4 min read

On November 20, Knight Foundation released a new report, “High School Student Views On The First Amendment: Trends in the 21st Century.” Dr. Emily Chamlee-Wright shares insights below. For more insights, read this post by Knight’s Evette Alexander and this post by Joan Donovan.

Knight Foundation’s recent report, “ High School Student Views on the First Amendment,” raises serious concerns that girls and students of color are more likely to believe that the First Amendment “goes too far in the rights it guarantees.” The report also finds, however, that course instruction on the First Amendment has a significant and positive impact on students’ appreciation for First Amendment protections.

Given all the forces competing for the average teenager’s attention, it’s not obvious that required courses in U.S. history, government and civics would have a statistically significant impact. It’s worth asking, then, why are we seeing this result?

Clearly, a strong curriculum plays a role. But it’s also likely that the most effective teachers are fostering “First Amendment Thinking.”

By First Amendment Thinking, I mean the habit of considering the unintended consequences of one’s preferred form of censorship. For example, censorship that students may favor in some circumstances can backfire when the details of any particular instance are flipped. Suppose that students are concerned about speech that is offensive to women and/or people of color. Teaching that focuses on First Amendment content alone conveys that, typically, one must tolerate such speech. The lesson: targets of hateful speech must learn how to grin and bear it.

But the teacher experienced in coaching “First Amendment Thinking” goes further. She helps students see that well-intentioned bans on speech can easily work against those the ban is aimed at protecting. Nadine Strossen, a master of First Amendment Thinking, argues that rules against hate speech make it much harder for people who do encounter hateful speech to call out those trafficking in it. Quoting such speech-even if it is meant to draw emotional support and public attention to the issue-can itself violate the ban. In effect, Strossen argues, well-intended bans on hate speech can inhibit the power of counter-speech to do its work.

Further, as Henry Louis Gates Jr. famously observes in his 1993 essay “ Let Them Talk,” such rules merely serve to make hateful speech less crass so that it passes through the censor’s net. Speech codes can punish the use of racial epithets, for example, but they cannot eliminate what Gates calls “coded speech”-the sort of speech that conveys the same idea as the epithet, but cloaks it in learned prose. Having passed the censor’s test, the more erudite versions of hateful speech acquire legitimacy, potentially doing greater harm than speech that is obviously vulgar.

“First Amendment Thinking” also draws upon the lessons of history that demonstrate that, in the hands of tyrants, the censor’s pen is a powerful weapon. In 1933, after a Dutch militant set fire to the German Parliament building (the Reichstag), the Nazi leadership issued the Reichstag Fire Decree under the guise of restoring order. The decree suspended vast sections of the German Constitution and restricted the “right of free expression of opinion, including freedom of the press [and] the right of assembly and […] association.” This decree, which made it illegal to criticize the regime, served as the ideal weapon for Adolf Hitler and his cabinet to manufacture a campaign against Jewish dissidents. As the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum observes, “With the decree in place, the regime was free to arrest and incarcerate political opponents without special charge, dissolve political organizations, and suppress publications.”

When students favor censorship, they are not thinking of lessons like these, in large part because the systematic and predictable consequences of well-intended censorship are not obvious. A key lesson from the Knight Foundation’s report is that appreciation for First Amendment rights requires skillful and patient teaching.

Dr. Chamlee-Wright is the president and CEO of the Institute for Humane Studies, supporting university scholars working within the classical liberal tradition.


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Our goal is to foster informed and engaged communities, which we believe are essential for a healthy democracy.

Emily Chamlee-Wright

Written by

Dr. Chamlee-Wright is the president and CEO of the Institute for Humane Studies, supporting university scholars working within the classical liberal tradition.

Informed and Engaged

Our goal is to foster informed and engaged communities, which we believe are essential for a healthy democracy.

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