The First Amendment says that “Congress shall make no law …abridging the freedom of speech.” It doesn’t have an age restriction. Yet for the last 50 years, the Supreme Court has essentially written young people out of the First Amendment, holding that their rights to speech and access to information are limited and conditional. As a result, young people experience infringements on their rights in countless situations. Moreover, the exceptions that have been carved out for youth often affect the speech rights of adults as well.
In the school setting, students are deprived of access to valuable literature because someone objects to its content. They are subjected to sexuality education programs that indoctrinate, rather than educate, by concealing information about sexual health, abortion, and same sex relations. They have been disciplined for criticizing teachers and school administrators, even if they are doing so from home on their own computers. “Zero tolerance” policies subject students to disciplinary action for art and creative writing that some consider “threatening.” The public schools have become an authoritarian institution, in which student expression can be highly regulated and sometimes suppressed.
Outside school, there are endless attempts all over the country to regulate music, films, video games and the internet, all in the name of protecting minors from certain kinds of content – sex, violence, religion, race and ethnicity. The FCC’s effort to impose fines for “fleeting expletives” and a brief “wardrobe malfunction,” and its erratic enforcement of its “decency” standard results in some stations refusing to air material like “Saving Private Ryan” and a celebrated PBS series on “Jazz in America.” This affect adults as well as minors, since shows that are not broadcast because of concerns about whether they are “indecent” aren’t seen by anyone – regardless of age.
The failure to acknowledge the right of young people to self-expression creates a gaping hole in the fabric of the First Amendment. NCAC believes that young people have a right to speak, read, and think freely. They need to experience freedom to learn about it and practice it. It’s also critical to protect the rights of the young because any incursion on fundamental First Amendment principles threatens the rights of all.
NCAC has espoused these principles over the years, to argue for minors’ First Amendment rights in a variety of contexts.