“As many as 35% [of American high school students] thought the First Amendment goes too far in the rights that it guarantees” is one of the key findings in the Knight Foundation’s 2011 Future of the First Amendment Survey, a study of 112,000 high school students. A key finding in a Future of the First Amendment follow up survey found “students support individual free expression rights that directly affect or interest them; they’re less supportive of rights that are less relevant to their lives.”

With the right to freedom of speech comes responsibility: the responsibility to be respectful in how we speak, and the responsibility to protect others’ right to freedom of speech, regardless of whether we agree or are interested in what they are saying. And, something we forget or frequently misunderstand, the First Amendment does not guarantee the right to not be offended.

Nonetheless, students’ First Amendment Rights in school are not always clearcut. A recent MSNBC article recounts how the rise of online social networks is challenging students’ “First Amendment right to insult [their] school.” While the article notes issues of student expression of unpopular opinions are not new, but rather “an ancient rite of passage,” cases of students receiving consequences ranging from suspension to removal from classes are reported.

So how then do we prepare our young to use their voices effectively and with integrity – if they are only allowed to speak about certain things, in certain ways, and for limited audiences? Four high school students from Monadnock Community Connections (now Making Community Connections Charter School) created a Student Voice Rubric for Schools. for assessing the degree to which a school system empowers student voice. They distinguish between schools that allow opinions and viewpoints “as long as they don’t inconvenience the administration or student body” and schools that encourage opinions and viewpoints “in private conversation and in open discussion.”

In The Citizen Solution: How You Can Make a Difference, Harry Boyte writes “People’s capacity to aspire is tied to ‘voice,’ the development of power and recognition that people gain through sustained organizing. … To organize for voice and recognition requires cultural action and savvy strategic maneuvering. ‘There is no shortcut to empowerment.'”  Aspiration and empowerment can have an impact on learning, as illustrated in “Pupil voice: comfortable and uncomfortable learning for teachers,” which presents research on ways in which “pupil voice” is seen improving teaching and learning.

Exemplifying empowerment of voice, the UK StudentVoice organization is focused on providing support, training and advice to help students get involved in decision-making.

And in Freedom for the Thought That We Hate: A Biography of the First Amendment, Anthony Lewis states, “Even in a country with constitutional guarantees of freedom, something more is needed to resist fear and its manipulation. That is courage.”

Our schools need courage, too. Empowering student voice is not without risk and certainly not without conflict. The First Amendment Center offers a treasure trove of resources for learning about and exploring our right to free speech, including an overview on what the First Amendment right to free speech means, resources for K-12 public school student expression and free speech on public college campuses. The Five Freedoms Project’s section on Voice offers additional resources, including a collection of lesson plans and a link to Nancy Mohr’s excellent article about the developmental stages of student empowerment.