Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Who Needs The First Amendment?

When I saw a story in the Chicago Tribune with the headline "Students say free speech goes `too far'," I thought this had to be some crackpot poll of 200 anti-ACLU kids who bought Bill O'Reilly's book and want to stop the "liberal media." I was wrong. The Knight Foundation (think Knight-Ridder newspapers) spent two years and a million dollars asking 100,000 students, 8,000 teachers, and 500 administrators about the First Amendment. Here are some of their findings:

  • Nearly three-fourths of high school students either do not know how they feel about the First Amendment or admit they take it for granted. Okay, that one isn't surprising. I can understand that most high school students don't think about the Constitution a lot. I did, but I was the editor of the student newspaper (the survey found that student journalists were far more aware of their rights than other students were).
  • Seventy-five percent erroneously think flag burning is illegal. I'll chalk this up to misunderstanding all the controversy. Besides, there are a lot of rules about how to handle the flag (like not letting it touch the ground), and students could infer that there was some law about burning it.
  • Only 51% think that newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of stories. Yikes! That one got my attention! It would be bad enough if only 51% believed that newspapers were allowed to publish without government approval. But how could just 51% believe that newspapers should be allowed to publish without government intervention? That means that half of these students think the media have too much freedom!
  • More than a third think the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees. Huh? This seems like a ridiculous opinion to me, but my wife and I actually got into a fight about it, with her on the oppressive side of the argument. "What about violent pornography? What about obscene 'shock' art?" Doesn't matter, I say. I may not want to see it, but you have the right to create it. I am a hardcore First Amendment defender. I'll have to keep working on her.
At a time when our constitutional rights are more endangered than ever (except the Second Amendment, of course), it is critical for people to understand what rights they have and why they are important. The First Amendment is the most obvious and most applicable in daily life. I think it's safe to assume that if students don't have a good grasp on that one, they know even less about unreasonable searches and seizures, due process of law, a speedy and public trial, excessive bail, cruel and unusual punishments, etc. If high school students are not aware, what kind of a society will we have when it's their turn to run the country?

The complete report is available here. I found something in the study that diminishes the previous paragraph's rant a bit, though. They surveyed students of all grades, slightly skewed toward lower grades (from 29% in 9th grade to 19% in 12th). If students don't take government or political science classes until junior or senior year (as was the case at my high school), then it is understandable that younger students might not know as much about the Bill of Rights as they will when they graduate. While this study is an overview of what high school students think, it isn't necessarily evidence that these things are not being taught in high school or that students won't know them by the time they graduate.


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