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Free Speech? High Schoolers Say, 'Whatever'

The way many high school students see it, government censorship (search) of newspapers may not be a bad thing, and flag burning is hardly protected free speech.

It turns out the First Amendment (search) is a second-rate issue to many of those nearing their own adult independence, according to a study of high school attitudes released Monday.

The original amendment to the Constitution is the cornerstone of the way of life in the United States, promising citizens the freedoms of religion, speech, press and assembly.

Yet, when told of the exact text of the First Amendment, more than one in three high school students said it goes "too far" in the rights it guarantees. Only half of the students said newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of stories.

"These results are not only disturbing; they are dangerous," said Hodding Carter III, president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation (search), which sponsored the $1 million study. "Ignorance about the basics of this free society is a danger to our nation's future."

The students are even more restrictive in their views than their elders, the study says.

When asked whether people should be allowed to express unpopular views, 97 percent of teachers and 99 percent of school principals said yes. Only 83 percent of students did.

The results reflected indifference, with almost three in four students saying they took the First Amendment for granted or didn't know how they felt about it. It was also clear that many students do not understand what is protected by the bedrock of the Bill of Rights.

Three in four students said flag burning is illegal. It's not. About half the students said the government can restrict any indecent material on the Internet. It can't.

"Schools don't do enough to teach the First Amendment. Students often don't know the rights it protects," Linda Puntney, executive director of the Journalism Education Association, said in the report. "This all comes at a time when there is decreasing passion for much of anything. And, you have to be passionate about the First Amendment."

The partners in the project, including organizations of newspaper editors and radio and television news directors, share a clear advocacy for First Amendment issues.

Federal and state officials, meanwhile, have bemoaned a lack of knowledge of U.S. civics and history among young people. Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., has even pushed through a mandate that schools must teach about the Constitution on Sept. 17, the date it was signed in 1787.

The survey, conducted by researchers at the University of Connecticut, is billed as the largest of its kind. More than 100,000 students, nearly 8,000 teachers and more than 500 administrators at 544 public and private high schools took part in early 2004.

The study suggests that students embrace First Amendment freedoms if they are taught about them and given a chance to practice them, but schools don't make the matter a priority.

Students who take part in school media activities, such as a student newspapers or TV production, are much more likely to support expression of unpopular views, for example.

About nine in 10 principals said it is important for all students to learn some journalism skills, but most administrators say a lack of money limits their media offerings.

More than one in five schools offer no student media opportunities; of the high schools that do not offer student newspapers, 40 percent have eliminated them in the last five years.

"The last 15 years have not been a golden era for student media," said Warren Watson, director of the J-Ideas project at Ball State University in Indiana. "Programs are under siege or dying from neglect. Many students do not get the opportunity to practice our basic freedoms."