Law School

Students study in front of the UGA School of Law.

The University of Georgia School of Law has announced that it will open a First Amendment Clinic with the help of a $900,000 gift from the Stanton Foundation. The clinic is a part of a growing list of First Amendment clinics at colleges such as Cornell, Vanderbilt, Harvard and Duke. When it opens, the clinic will advocate for First Amendment rights by focusing on relevant regional cases and acting as a resource for those defending the amendment and the amendment.

The plans for a First Amendment Clinic are a welcome sign that the university is dedicated to protecting free speech.

Free speech serves as the cornerstone of college life and classes. Exposure to new ideas and viewpoints helps students gain new perspective and understanding of others, an important part of learning. That's something I take very seriously as the editor of The Red & Black's Opinion section.

Unfortunately, however, many people lack a basic understanding of the First Amendment despite its central place in our society. According to 2019 the Freedom Forum Institute’s State of the First Amendment survey, only 71% of Americans could name at least one First Amendment right, a large increase over the previous year but still rather low. Further, a significant 29% of respondents believe the First Amendment goes too far.

There is also evidence that college students far underestimate the extent to which the First Amendment protects free speech on college campuses. According to a 2017 study by the Brookings Institute, only 39% of students believe “hate speech” is protected by the First Amendment, compared to 44% who believe it is not. In reality, however, the First Amendment does protect hate speech except in a few cases. Even more disturbingly, 19% of respondents — nearly one in five — said it was acceptable to silence a controversial speaker through violent means.

Poor understanding of the First Amendment limits the amendment’s influence on campuses. Given that so many students believe that silencing others and violence are an acceptable reactions to opposing views, there are likely many people who are afraid to voice their opinions. And, indeed, the data seem to suggest that students do think people are being silenced on campuses. According to a Gallup/Knight Foundation survey from 2017, 61% of students say campus climate deters speech, an increase of 7% from 2016.

By advocating for the First Amendment, the clinic could play a role in changing these troubling statistics. Educating students on the extent of the First Amendment and its importance could dispel misconceptions and encourage students to be more tolerant of those with opposing views, enabling more debate and fostering a better learning environment.

People should be allowed to express their ideas freely to promote greater and understanding. But, far too frequently, diverging views are stifled at colleges. Through its new First Amendment Clinic, however, UGA has begun taking necessary steps to protect the foundation of our democracy.

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