Students and the First Amendment

February 1, 2005 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism.

A flurry of news reports — a good bit of hand-wringing — have appeared in the last couple of days about a new survey that shows that many high school students do not have much knowledge or regard for the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. A third of the students said the First Amendment goes “too far” in granting rights to Americans. Hodding Carter, the head of the Knight Foundation that sponsored the study, called the results “not only disturbing; they are dangerous. Ignorance about the basics of this free society is a danger to our nation’s future.”

True, but as is the case with many news reports, stories about this survey have failed to put the numbers into some context.

It would be nice if surveys showed that the number of Americans who fully understood and supported the rights granted by the First Amendment to be at about 90 percent; that the majority of people get it when it comes to the press being a watchdog of government (and it would be nice if more of the press would understand that, too); and that the absence of prior restraint is a deeply ingrained American value that defines who we are.

The fact is that surveys don’t show this at all.

The First Amendment Center has been conducting an annual survey about people’s attitudes toward the First Amendment since 1997. Paul McMasters in commenting about some of those findings points out the following:

— 30 percent say the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees; although this is a significant drop from the 49 percent spike in 2002 (apparently related to fear and concern in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001), three in 10 is still an unsettling number.

— 42 percent say the “press in America has too much freedom,” although that number drops to 36 percent when the question is whether “Americans have too much press freedom.”

— 41percent disagree with the statement that newspapers should be allowed to freely criticize the U.S. military.

The results of the Center’s 2004 survey are on the web site as a PDF file.

In other words, the students in this latest survey are reflecting the attitudes of adults in this nation — attitudes that have been around for a while. Is this disturbing? Certainly. People should be more aware and supportive of the rights they have.

Is this a disturbing new trend? Probably not. There seems always to have been a significant number of people who trust the government more than they trust the news media and who do not trust themselves to make up their own minds.

The battle to educate people about the First Amendment continues. These new survey results simply tell us, sadly, that it will have to go on for another generation.

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