Protests, Press, and How the First Amendment Applies at Colleges

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly, Speech and Press Are a Package Deal

Students discussing their rights
Students having a discussion.

In a 2016 Gallup survey on how college students view press freedoms, nearly half said they believe in curtailing the news media’s access to campus events in certain scenarios.

The survey found that 48 percent of college students supported curbing news media access when campus protesters want to be left alone, while 49 percent support such limits when they believe a reporter will be biased. Forty-four percent support curtailing press access when students want to tell their stories themselves on social media.

Should the Media Give Student Protesters Privacy?

Activists say they have a right to create campus "safe spaces" where students can feel secure. For these students, this apparently includes not having to encounter any opinions that differ from their own, and not having to cooperate with news media outlets that might in any way be critical of campus protests.

What's truly disturbing about the Gallup findings is this: They show how many college students either don't understand or don't care about the First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and of the press.

What the First Amendment Says

The irony, of course, is that the First Amendment also guarantees the rights of students to hold the kind of protests that have been drawing news coverage in the first place, which students would know if they'd actually read the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

That stuff about the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances? That's what protests are all about.

The Relationship Between Journalism and Activism

Journalism is not about being a public relations mouthpiece for anyone, whether it be a government official, a corporate executive or a group of student demonstrators. It's the job of the press to report objectively and critically on both individuals and institutions.

Likewise, when half of college students support blocking reporters because of a perceived bias, and nearly half support such curbs when students want their message conveyed uncritically on social media, that also demonstrates ignorance of how the marketplace of ideas works in a democracy. As much as you may try to shield yourself and your movement from criticism, everyone must endure the slings and arrows of scrutiny by both the press and the public.