Law & Courts

First Amendment Attitudes Found Troubling

By Jessica L. Tonn — February 01, 2005 3 min read
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A majority of high school students are apathetic toward, and ignorant of, Americans’ First Amendment rights, concludes a study being released this week that surveyed 112,000 students at 544 public and private high schools nationwide.

The report—commissioned by the Miami-based John S. and James L. Knight Foundation—also surveyed nearly 8,000 teachers and more than 500 principals.

It found that nearly three-fourths of the students either do not know how they feel about the First Amendment or admit that they take it for granted. In addition, 75 percent of those surveyed erroneously think flag burning is illegal, half believe the government can censor the Internet, and more than a third think the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees.

The report, “The Future of the First Amendment,” is available online from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. () See also the Future of the First Amendment site.

Some of the results for teachers and administrators were similarly troubling.

For instance, only 50 percent of teachers said they personally think about their First Amendment rights, while 46 percent said they take those rights for granted. Fifty-six percent of principals reported personally thinking about those rights, while 43 percent acknowledged taking them for granted.

‘Dangerous’ Results

Hodding Carter III, the Knight Foundation’s president and chief executive officer, expressed deep concern. “These results are not only disturbing; they are dangerous,” he said in a statement. “Ignorance about the basics of this free society is a danger to our nation’s future.”

Some educators also were troubled, but not surprised, by the findings.

“The statistics are pretty close to being correct,” said Cricket F.L. Kidwell, the director of curriculum for 11 school districts in Trinity County, Calif. She said the survey confirmed the “deplorable situation” of civic education.

In Ms. Kidwell’s opinion, time constraints imposed by testing systems prevent teachers from adequately discussing constitutional rights with their students. Teachers who must adhere to strict standards so their students will pass state tests only have time to relay specific content information, she said, not broad political concepts.

Civic education could be improved, she added, if teachers were better able to hold classroom discussions on current events, pose insightful questions, and provide their students with more opportunities to use analytical skills.

Marcie Taylor-Thoma, the social studies coordinator for the state of Maryland, pointed out that adults, including teachers and administrators, are “just as confused” about their First Amendment rights as students, and that may be part of the problem.

But she says her state is trying to fill that gap—at least for this generation of students.

Last year, 66 percent of Maryland public high school students passed the state’s high school assessment in government, which measures students’ understanding of U.S. government laws and principles.

In Maryland, high school students must take a government course, as required by state curriculum standards.

Practice in Schools

Charles C. Haynes, a senior scholar at the Arlington, Va., office of the Nashville, Tenn.-based First Amendment Center, a nonprofit organization that advocates protection of First Amendment rights, argues that students’ misinterpretation of and lack of interest in their First Amendment rights result not only from poor classroom instruction, but also from the “prison-like environment” of schools.

“We have to improve not only how we teach the First Amendment, but how we practice it in schools,” he said.

Schools must “model the freedoms they teach,” Mr. Haynes said, by improving their student governments, protecting religious-liberty rights, encouraging freedom of expression, promoting academic freedom, and supporting the student press.

Mr. Haynes bemoaned the elimination of journalism programs in some schools and said that students involved in such programs tend to have a better understanding of their constitutional rights.

The Knight Foundation report found that among students who were involved in three or more journalism-related activities, 39 percent believe that Americans should have the legal right to burn the flag as a means of protest. Only 15 percent of students not involved in such activities agreed.

“The key [to improving civic education],” Mr. Haynes said, “is to give people the ability to practice their rights.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 02, 2005 edition of Education Week as First Amendment Attitudes Found Troubling

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