After the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, there has been an uptick in public discourse concerning the legal voting age in the U.S. In many vicinities, the legal voting age is 18. However, there are some districts and areas, such as Takoma Park (Maryland), that have lowered the legal voting age to 16 instead. In 21 states across the country, 17 year-olds can vote in primaries if they’ll be 18 by the general election date, but is this enough?
Since voting is a crucial First Amendment issue, consider these pros and cons of lowering the U.S. voting age to 16:
Pro: Increase Civic Engagement and Awareness Among Youth
As the American Council of Trustees and Alumni points out, we have a crisis of civic education in the U.S. currently. We have people of all ages who barely know important aspects of history (studies have shown that people are even forgetting about the Holocaust), and many Americans can’t explain the difference between the 3 different branches of the federal government.
This ignorance is not limited to young people (voter apathy happens at every age!), yet we focus on their life inexperience and lack of knowledge as a justification for denying them voting rights. Since young people must obey the laws like any other citizen and they’re affected by the policies our government leaders establish for our society (especially when it comes to education and long-term economic policies), why shouldn’t young people have some say in the laws that uniquely affect their lives? By lowering the voting age, we could likely increase youth involvement in civic participation and bolster their interest in political issues because they’re no longer sitting on the sidelines.
Con: Their Brains Aren’t Fully Developed Yet
A major argument against lowering the voting age is that young people’s brains aren’t fully developed until they’re in their mid-20s. However, this scientific argument demonstrates why 18 is a mostly arbitrary number when it comes to something like voting, not to mention: teenage brains aren’t so different from adult brains.
Yes, teenagers are still immature and learning about how the world works. Yes, teenagers can be prone to emotional decision-making. Yes, teenagers are more susceptible to external influences than adults with more life experience. However, consider how these arguments function when applied to people who are 18 or older:
- Should an adult with maturity issues be denied their right to vote?
- Does everyone have their lives figured out and understand how the world operates by 18? By 30? By 60? Ever?
- Should we assume that rational decision-making is something that automatically kicks in once you turn 18? Are adults (of any age) not prone to emotional decision-making as well?
- Are adults completely immune to external influences (such as fake news, political propaganda, fear appeals-based political advertising, vitriolic campaign rhetoric, etc.) and able (and willing) to make fully-informed decisions about their voting options?
Once you see how the common arguments against young people can be similarly employed to disenfranchise adult voters, the claim that 16-17 year-olds shouldn’t be allowed to vote falls apart.
Pro: Increase Voter Turnout
Did you know that young people have higher voter turnout rates than you might expect? While the issue of mandatory voting could take up a whole other blog post, it’s important to consider what role choice plays in American society. Adults have the freedom to decide whether or not they want to vote, regardless of their education level, work experience, military service, gender, religion, family background, and other factors. All that matters (with the exception of mental disabilities and felony records in some states) is that you’re older than 18.
To increase voter participation in our elections, we should allow younger people the opportunity to vote if they want to. That’s the beauty of America: we have the freedom to decide if we want to participate in our democratic system or not.
Con: Parental Manipulation
Another common argument against lowering the voting age in the US is the notion that parents will force their kids to vote for whomever they’re voting for. However, this argument is non-unique because children grow up with their parents’ political ideology expressed in familial interactions – how is an 18 year-old who still lives at home more immune to parental influences than a 16 year-old?
Furthermore, 16-17 year-olds in the news recently (such as the Parkland shooting survivors and other school shooting survivors) have demonstrated a keen awareness of political issues affecting them, even when their parents were minimally interested in politics beforehand. Perhaps parental manipulation could still happen, but arguably the pros outweigh the cons here.
Pro: Protect Youths’ First Amendment Rights
As the Yale Law & Policy Review points out, voting is speech. Voting is the act of expressing a preference for a candidate, policy, and/or ideology, and in a democratic society, there is arguably no such thing as a “wrong” vote. By preventing young people from voting, we’re preventing them from exercising their First Amendment rights. As we can see from the Parkland shooting survivors, Malala, and other extraordinary youth, people under 18 are already getting involved in politics.
There are even youth volunteering and interning opportunities within political action committees and other political organizations. If young people are interested in politics and want to exercise their First Amendment rights, then who are we to deny them that fundamental right?
There are civic duties – such as paying taxes and following the laws – then there are civic responsibilities, which LearningToGive.org defines as “comprised of actions and attitudes associated with democratic governance and social participation. Civic responsibility can include participation in government, church, volunteers and memberships of voluntary associations. Actions of civic responsibility can be displayed in advocacy for various causes, such as political, economic, civil, environmental or quality of life issues.”
If you want to get involved in your community and go beyond what is expected of you as an American citizen, here are 4 ways you can fulfill your civic responsibilities beyond simply voting once every few years.
Volunteer with a Local Nonprofit
There are many benefits of volunteering, including (but not limited to): decreased feelings of loneliness, increased self-confidence, higher levels of empathy for others, and a renewed sense of pride in your civic responsibilities. If you already work 40+ hours per week or attend school full-time, it might be difficult to find time to volunteer with a local homeless center, animal shelter, educational group, or elderly assistance organization. However, volunteerism is crucial for filling in the gaps left by underfunded government programs designed to help those who need it most.
Even if you just have 4 hours per month to spare, every little act of service matters. Our elected officials cannot solve every societal problem we have — but nonprofits and their volunteers can certainly make it better if we’re all willing to lend a hand to our fellow citizens.
Donate to a Civic-Minded Organization
Whether you already volunteer or you have no time in your schedule to accommodate volunteer opportunities at the moment, another way you can demonstrate a high level of civic responsibility is by donating to civic-minded organizations. For instance, First Amendment Voice accepts donations to help protect our most fundamental rights through community outreach programs, informational resources, and annual symposiums on First Amendment issues.
Additionally, the Center for Civic Education is a great nonprofit, nonpartisan resource that empowers students across the US by providing access to high-quality civic education programs.
Help Others Stay Informed
A major problem in the US right now is the proliferation of apathy among voters and nonvoters alike. Understandably, our lives are stressful and busy, but too much focus on ourselves has led many of us to neglect the positive impacts we could be having on our communities through civic participation efforts. You don’t need to dedicate several hours per week to helping others stay informed; instead, you could start by sharing important but underreported news stories from credible news organizations on your social media channels.
As the word citizenship implies, we’re all part of a larger community and we should take pride in fulfilling our civic responsibilities instead of avoiding them to focus on matters that directly impact ourselves. Sharing news stories, spreading awareness of local issues, and encouraging others to share credible information on social media is a great first step toward fulfilling your civic responsibilities.
Get Your Community Involved
A final way you can fulfill your civic responsibilities beyond just going to the polls once per year is getting your community involved in civic-minded efforts at the local, state and national levels. This may involve asking for contributions for a charity run, encouraging friends and family to volunteer with you on one of the many days of service throughout the year, and reminding everyone on social media to get out and vote.
There are no limits to what you as a citizen can do to exceed the minimum expectations of civic responsibility. As John F. Kennedy once said, “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”
America is divided over the issue of offensive speech, but these divisions don’t fall into simple categories of Democrats versus Republicans or Millennials versus Baby Boomers. At some point, many of us, regardless of age or political affiliation, has been offended by something someone else said. Does the First Amendment protect our rights to offend others (or others’ rights to offend us)? Here are 3 things to consider:
Offensive Speech Across Political Boundaries
Feeling offended is not limited to one political party affiliation. Whereas conservatives disparage “liberal snowflakes” for rallying against hate speech and in favor of political correctness, liberal groups and organizations have offended conservatives with the removal of religious or historical symbols in public spaces and media critiques of Republican figures. In other words: everyone is capable of being offended!
Questions that arise from this dilemma are:
- Should the offensive quality of speech be disregarded in legal considerations related to the First Amendment?
- Should the intent of the speaker have any impact on legal decisions involving offensive speech?
- Are there any legitimate harms to the circulation of offensive speech (such as the fighting words issue)?
- Could Democrats and Republicans ever come to a common understanding on issues related to offensive speech and political correctness?
Matal v. Tam (2017)
Contrary to popular misconceptions, there is no “hateful speech” exception to the First Amendment. This notion was reaffirmed in the 2017 Supreme Court decision in the case of Matal v. Tam. To explain his decision, Justice Kennedy wrote, “A law that can be directed against speech found offensive to some portion of the public can be turned against minority and dissenting views to the detriment of all. The First Amendment does not entrust that power to the government’s benevolence. Instead, our reliance must be on the substantial safeguards of free and open discussion in a democratic society.”
The decision in Matal v. Tam case demonstrates how speech viewed as offensive by a group of people is nevertheless protected under the First Amendment. There will likely be many legal cases similar to this one in the years to come.
Nonverbally Offending Others
The act of offending others isn’t limited to verbal speech or comments written in online, public forums. As the ReACT Gallery in Iowa demonstrates, art can be seen as pushing the boundaries of social appropriateness and downright offensiveness, depending on the values, beliefs and perspective of the person viewing a piece of art.
Similarly, offensive gestures such as raising one’s middle finger are typically protected by the First Amendment, and even “symbolic speech” acts such as burning the US flag have been protected by the First Amendment in Supreme Court decisions like Texas v. Johnson (1989). Nonverbal acts can be considered offensive to many different people, but unless these acts could lead to physical retaliation or even violence, they are generally considered protected under the First Amendment.
Do you think there should be laws prohibiting offensive, nonverbal speech? If so, where do we draw the line?
Compared to other forms of advertising, there are few restrictions placed upon online advertisements. Is this acceptable, or should we seek additional policy changes? Here are a few options we have available when considering how the First Amendment might regulate online ads:
Option 1: Unrestricted Commercial Speech
The concept of commercial speech arose from a 1942 Supreme Court decision, Valentine v. Chrestensen. Since then, commercial speech rights have expanded to the point where corporations have similar free speech protections as U.S. citizens when it comes to the First Amendment.
In an online context, unrestricted commercial speech would likely mean that platforms hosting advertisements (such as Google or Twitter) decide what they believe is acceptable to advertise on their websites, with no external regulations coming from the government. On one hand, this could be advantageous because profit-seeking corporations have an incentive to avoid public backlash, which means they would likely avoid hosting advertisements for socially unacceptable products and services.
On the other hand, this option allows corporations full control over what advertisements consumers will or won’t see, which could lead to unnecessary censorship of certain political views or targeting children with advertisements, as YouTube was recently caught doing.
Option 2: Let the Public Decide
Democracy is a complicated process, but there are many avenues through which American citizens can make their voices heard. When it comes to online advertisements, public outrage against certain companies or platforms has prompted other corporations to pull their ads from various platforms like YouTube and Facebook. For instance, in 2017, YouTube lost millions of dollars after advertisements were shown alongside videos promoting terrorist activity and hateful speech.
There have also been Change.org petitions from members of the public demanding change from advertisers. While many corporations may choose to overlook any public outcry against them on social media or on Change.org, the visibility of public protests on petition sites can be useful for enacting changes to online advertising norms without the need for governmental intervention.
Option 3: Incremental Regulations from the Government
This approach to online advertising regulations is already happening right now. Through the Federal Trade Commission, the government regulates online advertising and other forms of speech, though currently there are fewer laws designed for Internet-based ads in comparison to traditional forms of advertising like print, radio and television. For example, barely any regulations exist for online campaign advertisements, while the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulates offline political advertisements.
Should online advertisements be subject to the same rules as print, radio and television advertisements? Perhaps this will be the case in the future, but for now, it remains largely uncharted territory for the marketing world, in which corporations dictate what they’ll allow or disallow. It’s ultimately up to us as consumers to utilize our First Amendment rights to speak out in favor or against unrestricted commercial speech online.
In a recent discussion panel with conservative student group Turning Point USA, President Trump said the on-campus free speech crisis is “highly overblown.”
Specifically, Trump said, “If you look at what’s going on with free speech with the super left, with antifa, with all of these characters. I’ll tell you what, they get a lot of publicity, but you go to the real campuses, and you go all over the country, you go out to the Middle West, you go out even to the coast in many cases, we have a tremendous support. I would say we have majority support. I think it’s highly overblown. Highly overblown.”
Although a recent Gallup poll found the majority of college students support freedom of speech on their campuses, that same poll found that a majority of students also support restrictions against hate speech on campuses. Other research has shown college students and graduates actually support freedom of speech more than other demographic groups, and that support for our First Amendment rights has consistently risen over time (despite what present-day media reports might suggest).
So is the issue truly “overblown” like President Trump says it is? Consider these two perspectives:
Campus Diversity and Inclusiveness
On one hand, there’s the mentality that some groups of students have been historically oppressed or restricted from accessing the same educational and employment opportunities as other groups. In this sense, students believe there should be restrictions against hate speech targeting racial/ethnic minorities because they’ve already encountered this damaging treatment for decades, and that sexually-charged speech against predominantly female students should be considered harassment (and thus, banned) because it creates a fearful environment for those targeted by such comments.
As this humorous and informative video about political correctness from 8-Bit Philosophy explains, the climate of PC-ness might seem to be getting out of hand, but it’s not entirely bad. For instance, hate speech and verbal harassment on campus could drive students to drop out of college in fear for their safety. Advocates for restricting hate speech on college campuses thereby argue that doing so could offer a better learning environment and protect students against the negative psychological consequences of constant harassment.
Freedom of Speech for Political Minorities
In many universities across the U.S., students and faculty members are likely more liberal-leaning than conservative. From this perspective, conservative members of the campus community often feel as though they must restrain their speech and expression to avoid backlash from the politically correct crowd. Although there exist several conservative student clubs and organizations around the country, they tend to be outnumbered by their liberal counterparts.
It doesn’t help the issue that many college campuses limit free speech to certain designated areas and times of the day. These “free speech zones” have been ruled unconstitutional in several legal cases, but they nevertheless continue to exist on other campuses where they haven’t been challenged in court yet.
The question ultimately comes down to this: even if students largely disagree with certain viewpoints, should those viewpoints be marginalized or even silenced for the sake of political correctness or inclusion? Many First Amendment advocates say no, but the tension between freedom of speech and creating a safe learning environment for all students will likely remain a contentious issue for years to come.