40% of Millennials don’t understand the First Amendment

A recent survey by the Pew Research Center showed that many members — but fewer than half — of Millennials have a loose grasp on the meaning or importance of the First Amendment.

The survey confirmed that, as a whole, people in the United States tend to believe that the government should not intervene to prevent people from making public statements that are offensive to minorities. However, 40 percent of Millennials believe the government should be allowed to curtail such statements.

pew-center-chartIf you look at Millennials compared to other generations, you may notice what could be a trend. Each successive generation has a greater likelihood of favoring government intervention: Silent, 12 percent; Boomer, 24; Gen X, 27; Millennial, 40 percent.

Apparently, the later you are born, the more likely you are to forget the importance of freedom of speech.

This possible trend jives with what I have observed. I was born in the early years of the Millennial Generation. I believe that most of the people I have interacted with who are near my age tend to disfavor regulation of speech. This doesn’t mean we like or agree with public offensive statements, but we are very likely to (a) ignore it, (b) roll our eyes at it and get on with our lives, or (c) speak out against it ourselves with an alternative viewpoint.

But it seems that younger Millennials, those in college now, don’t do that. Or rather, their way of speaking out against words they deem offensive is to encourage censorship.

For example, in the Fall of 2015 the Wesleyan University student government slashed the budget of the student newspaper after the paper published an opinion piece that criticized the Black Lives Matter movement.

I remember when a column I (as editor) ran in my college newspaper drew a negative reaction from some members of the conservative Mormon campus community. The author was writing about the complexities married students faced as they juggled competing class schedules, jobs, and other demands. Meanwhile, they lived in cramped quarters with a bathroom so small they couldn’t even shower together. Figuring that I was the most conservative and easy-blushing person on campus and yet I had no problem with the idea that a married couple would like to shower together, I ran the column (one of the most well-crafted we ever saw in that paper). This drew a backlash from several people who found the column offensive.

(The writer tried to redeem himself by writing a tender column about the experience he was having as an expectant father. This attempt failed, though, when we caught more flack because he mentioned that the baby was growing in a uterus.)

Despite the criticism that the columns drew from students and administrators, I recall no threats at all to the newspaper’s editorial freedom. No demands that I step down as editor, no suggestions of diverted funding.

This is not exactly parallel to saying something inaccurate and demeaning of a racial minority, but, still, those older Millennials I was in college with did not feel the need to stop us from printing something they didn’t like.

Apparently, this ability has been somewhat lost.

Why do younger Millennials believe that action should be taken to prevent or curtail free speech? Maybe because they don’t understand it.

Maybe because there seems to be a belief that allowing speech is the same as endorsing speech. This belief is exemplified in the Pew Center article that reported on the survey. It says that while “Four-in-ten Millennials say the government should be able to prevent people publicly making statements that are offensive to minority groups, while 58% said such speech is OK.”

But the Pew Center researchers didn’t ask whether statements offensive to minority groups are OK or fine and dandy. They “asked whether people believe that citizens should be able to make public statements that are offensive to minority groups, or whether the government should be able to prevent people from saying these things.”

There are numerous reasons that the government should not curtail speech, even if some people find it offensive. For one, “offensive” is very personal. What offends me might seem perfectly fine to you. What you see as social commentary of a group might come across as disrespectful to someone who is in that group.

Meanwhile, there is a big difference between a social movement that encourages a decrease in offensive speech and a legal restriction of what speech can happen. Giving the government power to regulate speech gives the government power to silence those who speak out against any kind of public policy.

I disagree with a lot of the things said by Donald Trump, Barack Obama, and just about anyone who speaks out loudly about politics. I believe a lot of their statements are offensive. Likewise, I’m a Mormon, and people say some pretty ignorant and mean things about Mormons from time to time. There’s a hit musical mocking and misrepresenting my religion. But I would never dream of demanding that the government step in and stop statements that I don’t like.

This doesn’t mean I or my government approve the message of any of these statements. It simply means I believe in freedom of speech.