Monday, January 31, 2005

First Things First

A recent survey among high school students shows that they have little awareness or regard for the First Amendment.

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

It turns out the First Amendment 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.


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.” [AP]

This kind of survey comes out every so often, usually showing that not just high school students but your average citizen thinks the First Amendment goes “too far” in protecting the rights of speech. It’s slightly ironic in that if it wasn’t for the First Amendment, the researchers would have a tough time getting permission to do the survey in the first place and publish the results.

I’m not surprised that high school students feel that the First Amendment is “no big deal.” At that age they have spent all of their lives being told what they can’t do – don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t do drugs, don’t have sex. All good advice, but as a recovering teacher, I can hear the students saying, “Well, what CAN I do?”

Second, teenagers are still in the first-person stage of life: they don’t think outside of themselves, and the idea of an abstract idea such as freedom of expression hasn’t really sunk in as it relates to other people and society. In other words, it requires a certain amount of maturity and experience for the meaning to sink in. Some kids get it, some don’t. Some never do.