Thursday, March 24, 2005

Teens Unclear, Uncommitted to First Amendment Rights

Results from the Knight Foundation’s High School Initiative poll were broadcast widely last week. Many citizens were shocked to read that only 51 percent of the high school students polled thought “newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of stories.” 75 percent thought there were current laws against flag burning as a political expression, which there are not. 49 percent thought that the federal government can legally restrict indecent material on the Internet. 73 percent take for granted or do not know “First Amendment Rights.” More than a third of the students thought the First Amendment goes too far in protecting rights.

The first three pages of the Perspective Section of the Sunday, March 20, 2005 issue of the Chicago Tribune focus on these surveys results. The implications for our future are serious, for it is harder to protect rights when people do not even understand that they have these rights. Charles M. Madigan implicates low school funding for civics education as one factor responsible for the poor understanding of the First Amendment by youth.

I am not totally surprised by the findings. We are constantly being told that high school students do not know where to find Canada on a map or that they can not name the president who issued the Emancipation Proclamation. In a slight defense of the students, I want to say that I meet adults coming into the library who are as ill informed.

Madigan seems to ignore two survey questions to which teens gave more positive responses than the teachers, principals, and adults polled. Teens were more likely to agree “musicians should be allowed to sing songs with lyrics others may find offensive” and “high school students should be allowed to report controversial issues in their student newspapers without approval of school authorities.” Challenge rights that teens understand and they suddenly rise up. Maybe there is hope for the First Amendment after all.

The Knight Foundation press release and the High School Journalism Project websites give more details. The later has the full 92 page report as a PDF file.

The Chicago Tribune Perspective included several great quotations. My favorite came from Jimmy Carter. “America did not invent human rights. In a very real sense…human rights invented America.”

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