Law & Courts

Schools Fall Short On First Amendment Rights

By Robert C. Johnston — March 21, 2001 3 min read

Educators believe they do a good job teaching students about the rights to freedom of religion, speech, the press, assembly, and petition as guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But when it comes to granting students those rights in schools, educators are more wary.

That’s the conclusion of a survey released last week by two national organizations that plan to offer public schools models for how to put their beliefs in the First Amendment into action.

"[Educators] need to be convinced that students can exercise their First Amendment rights with responsibility,” said Gene Carter, the executive director of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development in Alexandria, Va. “They want students to learn about freedom, but are concerned about how students practice freedom, especially in the school setting.”

The ASCD announced that it will partner with the First Amendment Center in New York City on the multiyear project.

The goals of the project are:

  • To reach a consensus on guidelines for applying First Amendment rights in public schools;
  • To develop model schools where First Amendment rights are understood and applied;
  • To encourage curricula that deepen students’ understanding of the First Amendment; and
  • To educate school and community leaders on the significance of First Amendment ideals.

“The guiding principles of the First Amendment stand at the heart of our democracy and at the foundation of citizenship in a diverse society,” said Ken Paulson, the executive director of the First Amendment Center, a nonprofit organization that studies free-expression issues.

Information Gap

As part of the effort, 1,802 public school teachers and administrators were surveyed in January by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut.

The poll found that while educators have a greater knowledge of First Amendment rights than does the general public, based on past surveys, roughly one in five couldn’t recall the five freedoms guaranteed by the amendment.

Moreover, 71 percent of the educators said they would not allow students to report on controversial issues in school newspapers without the approval of school officials. Ninety-two percent would not allow students to wear T-shirts with a message that some people might find offensive.

“The efforts to limit or censor student press are extremely frequent,” said Mark Goodman, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va. “The lessons we teach by our actions about civics are extremely troubling.”

About six in 10 teachers and administrators did not think students should be allowed to distribute religious materials at schools. About half felt the same regarding political materials.

Carl Esbeck, the director of the Center for Law and Religious Freedom at the Christian Legal Society in Annandale, Va., said his office initiates at least one case a week involving alleged violations of students’ rights to religious expression.

“It could involve use of a bulletin board, literature table, or public address system,” he said. Most of the issues, Mr. Esbeck said, are resolved by an exchange of letters in which his office explains its position on how and when students can use school facilities for religious expression.

His experience appears to be borne out by the survey, which found that 39 percent of administrators and 69 percent of teachers were “not at all familiar” with the guidelines on religious expression in schools distributed by the Clinton administration in 2000.

Mr. Carter of the ASCD said the initiative would move “full-speed ahead beginning this week to develop their guidelines and to find schools across the country that encourage First Amendment ideals.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 21, 2001 edition of Education Week as Schools Fall Short On First Amendment Rights


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