Annenberg film and annual civics survey highlights freedom of speech

For Constitution Day on Sept. 17, Annenberg Classroom has released a new film on the First Amendment and the Annenberg Public Policy Center published their annual survey on Americans’ civics knowledge.

The First Amendment’s right to free speech is one of our most important rights as citizens. But what does freedom of speech mean for students in public schools? How do you balance a school’s need for order with a student’s right to free expression? A new film from Annenberg Classroom on the First Amendment as it applies to student freedom of speech, titled “The First Amendment: Student Freedom of Speech,” explores the evolution of student free speech rights through Supreme Court cases.

A group of students demonstrating in front of a school building.
Still from “First Amendment: Student Freedom of Speech”

The film is among the many free, nonpartisan, high-quality resources offered to educators, students, and families by Annenberg Classroom and the Civics Renewal Network, both projects of the Leonore Annenberg Institute for Civics at the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) of the University of Pennsylvania.

The 28-minute film explores what free speech protections are accorded to students in schools and how we decide what speech is protected versus what is not, examining in detail legal cases related to student freedom of speech. These include the groundbreaking 1969 case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, in which students were suspended for wearing black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War, and the 2021 case Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., in which 14-year-old cheerleader Brandi Levy was suspended from the school team because of a profanity-laden Snapchat speaking negatively about the school which she posted while off-campus.

Also released for Constitution Day on Sept. 17 is the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s annual, nationally representative survey. The current survey found the first drop in six years among those who could identify all three branches of government, and declines among those who could name the First Amendment rights. In 2020 and 2021, the survey marked an increase in Americans’ knowledge of some basic facts about their government, such as an ability to name the three branches of U.S. government.

Highlights from this year’s survey show less than half of U.S. adults (47%) could name all three branches of government, down from 56% in 2021 and the first decline on this question since 2016. Additionally, the number of respondents who could, unprompted, name each of the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment also declined, sharply in some cases.

An APPC analysis found that taking a high school civics class continues to be associated with correct answers to civics knowledge questions, including knowledge of the three branches; knowledge of First Amendment rights; the meaning of a 5-4 Supreme Court decision; the Supreme Court having the final say on the constitutionality of a president’s actions; and knowing that Facebook is not covered by the First Amendment.

Read more at the Annenberg Public Policy Center.