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The Future of the First Amendment

What America's High School Students Think About Their Freedoms 

Knight Foundation 31jan2005

 

Executive Summary and Key Findings

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation's High School Initiative seeks to encourage students to use the news media, including student journalism, and to better understand and appreciate the First Amendment. As part of the initiative, the foundation funded this “Future of the First Amendment'' research project, focusing on the knowledge and attitudes of high school students, teachers and administrators. Specifically, the study seeks to determine whether relationships exist - and, if so, the nature of those relationships - between what teachers and administrators think, and what students do in their classrooms and with news media, and what they know about the First Amendment. Ultimately, the project surveyed more than 100,000 high school students, nearly 8,000 teachers and more than 500 administrators and principals at 544 high schools across the United States.

High school students' attitudes about the First Amendment are important because each generation of citizens helps define what freedom means in our society. The words of the First Amendment - Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances - do not change, but how we interpret them does. In recent years, in fact, annual surveys of adult Americans conducted by The Freedom Forum show that public support for the First Amendment is neither universal nor stable: it rises and falls during times of national crisis. In the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks, the nation was almost evenly split on the question of whether or not the First Amendment “goes too far in the rights it guarantees.'' Not until 2004 did America 's support for the First Amendment return to pre 9-11 levels, when it received support from only about two-thirds of the population. Even in the best of times, 30 percent of Americans feel that the First Amendment, the centuries-old cornerstone of our Bill of Rights, “goes too far.''

How will America 's high school students affect this balance? “The Future of the First Amendment'' findings are not encouraging. It appears, in fact, that our nation's high schools are failing their students when it comes to instilling in them appreciation for the First Amendment. This study, the most comprehensive of its kind, shows that nearly three of every four students do not think about the First Amendment or say they take its rights for granted.

The study suggests that First Amendment values can be taught - that the more students are exposed to news media and to the First Amendment, the greater their understanding of the rights of American citizens. But it also shows that basics about the First Amendment are not being taught, that 75 percent of the students surveyed think flag burning is illegal, that nearly 50 percent believe the government can censor the Internet, and that many students do not think newspapers should publish freely.

Administrators say student learning about the First Amendment is a priority, but not a high priority.

Key Findings 1-12

1. High school students tend to express little appreciation for the First Amendment. Nearly three-fourths say either they don't know how they feel about it or take it for granted.

2. Students are less likely than adults to think that people should be allowed to express unpopular opinions or newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of stories.

3. Students lack knowledge and understanding about key aspects of the First Amendment. Seventy-five percent incorrectly think that flag burning is illegal. Nearly half erroneously believe the government can restrict indecent material on the Internet.

4. Students who do not participate in any media-related activities are less likely to think that people should be allowed to burn or deface the American flag. Students who have taken more media and/or First Amendment classes are more likely to agree that people should be allowed to express unpopular opinions

5. Students who take more media and/or First Amendment classes are more willing to answer questions about their tolerance of the First Amendment. Those who have not taken the classes say they “don't know” to First Amendment questions at a much higher rate.

6. Most administrators say student learning about journalism is a priority for their school, but less than 1 in 5 think it is a high priority, and just under a third say it is not a priority at all. Most, however, feel it is important for all students to learn some journalism skills.

7. Most administrators say they would like to see their school expand existing student media, but lack of financial resources is the main obstacle.

8. Students participating in student-run newspapers are more likely to believe that students should be allowed to report controversial issues without approval of school authorities than students who do not participate in student newspapers.

9. Student media opportunities are not universally offered in schools across the country. In fact, more than 1 in 5 schools (21 percent) offer no student media whatsoever.

10. Of the high schools that do not offer student newspapers, 40 percent have eliminated student papers within the past five years. Of those, 68 percent now have no media.

11. Low-income and non-suburban schools have a harder time maintaining student media programs than wealthier and suburban schools.

12. Interestingly, virtually the same percentage of students participate in media activities in schools that offer a high volume of student media, as in those schools with no media programs. Apparently, students interested in journalism find a way to participate in informal media activities, even if their school does not offer formal opportunities.


Key Finding 1

High school students tend to express little appreciation for the First Amendment. Nearly three-fourths (73 percent) either say they don't know how they feel about the First Amendment, or they take it for granted.

“Schools don't do enough to teach the First Amendment. Students often don't know the rights it protects. 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.”

—Linda Puntney Executive Director, Journalism Education Association

After the text of the First Amendment was read to students, more than a third of them (35 percent) thought that the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees. Nearly a quarter (21 percent) did not know enough about the First Amendment to even give an opinion. Of those who did express an opinion, an even higher percentage (44 percent) agreed that the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees.

The graphic shows that teachers and principals are more likely to personally think about their First Amendment rights rather than take them for granted, but just 27 percent of students personally think about them. Thirty-seven percent of students either have not yet formed an opinion or are unwilling to express their opinion.

The rights guaranteed by the First Amendment: Do you "personally think about them?" Do you "take them for granted?"

 


Key Finding 2

Students are less likely than adults to think that people should be allowed to express unpopular opinions or newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of stories.

“The First Amendment is the cornerstone of our democratic society. Unfortunately, young people don't live it enough. It becomes like the granite monument in the park that we never visit.”

—Sandy Woodcock, Director Newspaper Association of America Foundation

Adults, teachers and principals are more apt to agree with the traditional forms of expressing one's First Amendment rights. For example, up to 80 percent think newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of stories.

The graphic, however, shows that when it comes to situations more relevant to students' own concerns, students agree at higher rates than adults that certain forms of expression should be allowed (i.e., musicians singing songs with lyrics some may find offensive, and students reporting controversial issues in their papers without approval from school authorities).

Do you agree or disagree that …

 

*Adult data is based on findings from the State of the First Amendment (SOFA) survey conducted each year by the Freedom Forum in Nashville , Tenn. , and the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut . Data listed is from the most recent SOFA survey in which the question was asked. In the chart above, the breakdown of SOFA data is as follows: People should be allowed to express… (2003); Newspapers should be allowed to publish… (2003); Musicians should be allowed to sing songs… (2004); High school students should be allowed to report… (2000).


Key Finding 3

Students lack knowledge and understanding about key aspects of the First Amendment. Seventy-five percent think that flag burning is illegal. Nearly half believe the government can legally restrict indecent material on the Internet.

“Schools are not teaching the principles of the First Amendment broadly enough. That's in part because civics education has all but disappeared. It's odd that we're in the second great era of immigration to this country and these groups are not being exposed to the basics of our Constitution and democratic society.”

—Richard Lee Colvin, Director, Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, Columbia University

Students are, on the whole, unclear about constitutionally protected First Amendment rights. For example, they were evenly split over whether government can legally restrict indecent material on the Internet: 49 percent erroneously said yes, while 51 percent correctly said no.

This graphic shows that just 25 percent of students correctly believe that flag burning as a means of political protest is legal.

Under current law, do Americans have the legal right to burn the American flag as a means of political protest?

Student's responses (correct answer is "yes")


Key Finding 4

Students who do not participate in any media-related activities are less likely to think that people should be allowed to burn or deface the American flag as a political statement. Students who have taken more media and/or First Amendment classes are more likely to think that people should be allowed to express unpopular opinions.

“Sadly, most principals think their schools are doing a good job teaching the First Amendment, but it is clear that too few understand or value the ideas within the First Amendment that they claim to teach.”

—Scott Olson, Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs, Minnesota State University, Mankato; and former Dean, Ball State University 's College of Communications

Most students (86 percent) do not participate in any media-related activities. The 14 percent that do participate were classified into three groups:

• 8 percent are “low activity” students (they participate in one activity); • 3 percent are “moderate activity” students (they participate in two activities); • 3 percent are “high activity'' students (they participate in three or more activities).

In general, the more students participated in media-related activities, the more they appreciated certain First Amendment rights.

For example, this graphic shows that 39 percent of high activity students think that people should be allowed to burn or deface the American flag as a political statement. However, just 15 percent of no activity students felt that way.

People should be allowed to burn or deface the American flag as a political statement- agree or disagree?

 

This graphic shows that 87 percent of students who have taken at least four classes dealing with the media and/or First Amendment think people should be allowed to express unpopular opinions, while nearly 20 percent fewer (68 percent) who have not taken any of those classes agree with that right.

People should be allowed to express unpopular opinions-- agree or disagree?

 


Key Finding 5

Students who take more media and/or First Amendment classes are more willing to answer questions about their tolerance of First Amendment rights. Those who have not taken the classes say they “don't know” to First Amendment questions at a much higher rate.

“Being able to question authority and have a voice in how government runs is positively essential. Citizens who don't appreciate that won't even realize when their freedoms are eroding. Students who learn to blindly accept situations they really could and should change will not be the voting, thinking citizens we need in our country.”

—Candace Perkins Bowen, Scholastic Media Coordinator School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Kent State University

While significant percentages of students in all categories of class participation said they “don't know'' if First Amendment rights are something they personally think about or take for granted, it is clear that the more classes a student has taken, the more willing they are of expressing an opinion about First Amendment issues.

This graphic shows that more than half, or 52 percent, of the students who have not taken these classes said they “don't know'' to First Amendment questions.

Are the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment something you personally think about or are they something you take for granted?

Percentage who responded "don't know" by number of classes taken

 


Key Finding 6

Most administrators say student learning about journalism is a priority for their school, but less than 1 in 5 think it is a high priority, and just under a third say it is not a priority at all. Most, however, feel it is important for all students to learn some journalism skills.

“The First Amendment gets some attention in schools, but often not enough attention…Increased graduation requirements have limited the opportunity for students to pursue electives in the curriculum.”

—Richard Johns, Executive Director, Quill and Scroll Society School of Mass Communication, University of Iowa

While a small percentage of high school administrators say that student learning about media and journalism is a high priority for their school (17 percent), the vast majority of principals (91 percent) feel it is important for all students to learn some journalism skills.

However, this graphic shows that journalism is not a priority for just under a third (30 percent) of our nation's high schools. In all, a slight majority (53 percent) said that it is a priority, but not a high priority.

Where does student learning about media and journalism rank among your high school's list of priorities?

Answered by high school administrators

 


Key Finding 7

Most administrators say they would like to see their school expand existing student media, but lack of financial resources is the main obstacle.

“Support for the teaching of student media and First Amendment has to come from the top down, from the superintendent of schools to the principal to the adviser to the student. Too often the newspaper adviser is “the new kid on the block” who is far more interested in getting tenure than rocking the boat. Support among fellow teachers often is lacking as well. It gets disheartening very quickly when you're one person fighting against many.”

—Richard Holden, Executive Director Dow Jones Newspaper Fund

“Given the information age explosion, it seems logical for schools to offer a solid understanding of the news media as part of the overall school curriculum. With it, students would also become more aware of their Constitutional rights.''

—Jack Dvorak, Director, High School Journalism Institute Professor, School of Journalism, Indiana University

“The report is a call to action…Scholastic media training organizations must also focus on principals and administrators. They can make or break programs. One suggestion: let's develop for-credit courses in the student media and First Amendment and tailor them for the principals. This would show them how they can balance all their concerns AND encourage student media and expression.”

—Warren Watson, Director, J-Ideas Ball State University

An overwhelming majority (85 percent) of administrators say they would like to see their schools expand existing student media programs. However, they also feel that many obstacles stand in the way.

The following graphic shows that after budgeting constraints, the No. 2-ranked obstacle is student apathy. Additionally, because student media is not a priority among high school officials and there's a lack of support from school district officials, even among extracurricular activities, journalism is not often recognized as an important priority. The potential controversy that student media might generate was considered less of an obstacle.

What current obstacles stand in the way of your school expanding its student media programs?

Mean rating on scale from 0-10: 0 = not an obstacle and 10 = major obstacle

 


Key Finding 8

Students participating in student-run newspapers are more likely to believe that students should be allowed to report controversial issues without approval of school authorities than students who do not participate in student newspapers.

“The biggest obstacle to practicing First Amendment principles in schools is the undemocratic, repressive way in which many schools are run. If schools want to take the First Amendment seriously, they must give students and all members of the school community a meaningful voice in shaping the life of the school. The biggest obstacle to teaching student media are budget cuts and the myopic focus on high-stakes testing.”

—Charles Haynes, Senior Scholar Freedom Forum First Amendment Center

While participation in media-related activities has some impact on appreciation for the First Amendment, certain types of activities, such as the student newspaper, have a noticeably greater effect. Students who worked on school newspapers appreciated and understood the media and the First Amendment more than students as a whole. Not surprisingly, 64 percent of students participating in their school papers said students should be free to report controversial issues while 58 percent of non-participants agree.

Similarly, when looking at the broader issue of press freedom, the following graphic shows that school newspaper participants are more tolerant. Sixty-one percent of newspaper participants said newspapers should be able to publish freely without government approval of a story. Just half (50 percent) of students who do not participate in a school paper agreed that newspapers should have that right.

Newspapers should be able to publish freely without government approval of a story - agree or disagree?

 


Key Finding 9

Student media opportunities are not universally offered in schools across the country. In fact, more than 1 in 5 schools (21 percent) offer no student media whatsoever.

“I think the number of students (and probably teachers too) who could list all of the rights afforded by the First Amendment is probably frightening.”

—Ann Akers, Associate Director National Scholastic Media Association

Nearly a quarter of high schools in the United States do not offer any media-related extracurricular activities. This graphic shows that another 51 percent of the schools surveyed only offer one form of media, and just 28 percent offer two or more types of media.

Amount of media activities currently offered at high schools

No media-school offers no student media activities; Low-school offers one student media activity; Medium-school offers two or three student media activities; High-school offers four or more student media activities.

Looking at specific types of media, this graphic shows that student newspapers are the clear winner; 74 percent of schools offer some kind of a student paper. Other types of student media such as the Internet, television, magazine and radio do not fare nearly as well.

Currently offered


Key Finding 10

Of the high schools that do not offer student newspapers, 40 percent have eliminated student papers within the past five years. Of those, 68 percent now have no media.

“Clearly, greater participation in student media will be a big help, but also, more frequent and more general conversations about our first freedom can make a difference. It's something that all of us—not just those in the journalism community, but all who care about education—should advocate.''

—Rosalind Stark, Retired Executive Director, Radio and Television News Directors Foundation, where she oversaw the high school journalism program; board member, Student Press Law Center

Twenty-six percent of schools surveyed do not offer an official school newspaper. This graphic shows that of the schools that dropped their newspapers in the past five years, 41 percent still have at least one student media activity.

Continued student media offerings by schools that have dropped their student newspapers in the past five years

 


Key Finding 11

Low-income and non-suburban schools have a harder time maintaining student media programs than wealthier and suburban schools.

“I find students are really not very informed. They have a very narrow view of what the First Amendment is, perhaps. Why I think that, is because in many cases they have not enjoyed First Amendment rights yet in their lives. And it's very hard for them to understand what the First Amendment is about when they haven't been given that freedom yet. Schools don't encourage and nurture free thinking and free expression.”

—Marilyn Weaver, Chairwoman Department of Journalism, Ball State University

Schools in lower-income areas had a larger drop in student newspapers over the past five years than wealthier schools. There was a 37 percent decrease in school papers in lower middle income schools in the past five years, compared to a 28 percent drop in middle income schools and a 16 percent drop in upper income schools.

This graphic shows that while 54 percent of rural schools and 30 percent of urban schools that do not offer a student newspaper dropped them in the past five years, just 16 percent of suburban schools dropped theirs during the same period.

Percentage of schools that dropped student newspaper in the past five years

Percentages in chart reflect percent of schools in each category that dropped their student newspapers in the past five years among those schools that do not currently offer a student newspaper.


Key Finding 12

Interestingly, virtually the same percentage of students participate in media activities in schools that offer a high volume of student media, as in those schools with no media programs. Apparently, students interested in journalism find a way to participate in informal media activities, even if their school does not offer formal opportunities.

“What kind of citizens do we want in 10 or 20 or 30 years? Do we want citizens that will blindly accept whatever the government tells them, or do we want a citizenry that expects the government to operate openly and transparently?”

—Barbara Thill, Publications Adviser/Journalism Teacher, Chicago

In one of the more interesting findings in this survey, there was no significant difference in student media participation in schools where different amounts of media were offered. The following graphic shows that virtually the same percentage of students participate in media activities in schools that offer a high amount of sanctioned student media as compared with those that offer none.

Participation in Student Media Activities by School Type

		None	Low	Medium	High
Newspaper	7%	8%	8%	6%
Magazine	3	3	4	3
Radio		3	3	3	5
TV		4	3	6	6
Internet	5	4	5	5
Other		5	4	5	6

 

None-school offers no student media activities; Low-school offers one student media activity; Medium-school offers two or three student media activities; High-school offers four or more student media activities.

This suggests there may be a number of ways to increase participation in student media, beyond simply offering more sanctioned programs. The quality of the student media offered may well play a significant role in the process. Moreover, any other means of getting students interested in journalism and the media is likely to have a greater impact on students' level of interest and participation. Once that interest is generated, offering activities that are supported by the school may help sustain their interest and participation over time.

“Wouldn't it be incredible if we could figure out a way to help people really understand and value our First Amendment? Just think how far we'd have come, as Americans, if every student left school understanding—and believing—that a truly democratic society is premised on all of its people having the freedom to think, write and speak freely. So, I hope what comes out of this (report) is a push for more education on the First Amendment.''

—Rosalind Stark, Retired Executive Director, Radio and Television News Directors Foundation; Board Member, Student Press Law Center

“This report illuminates an untenable gap in our education system in teaching and understanding the First Amendment and the freedoms we cherish. Therefore, it's no surprise the health of scholastic journalism is in jeopardy. One effective remedy is to build and nurture quality student media that operates freely and without censorship. Media by and for students engages and energizes the school community. It is democracy in action.''

—Diana Mitsu Klos, Senior Project Director, American Society of Newspaper Editors Foundation, oversees high school journalism program

“The report shows that young people in America are conscious that they are being denied their First Amendment rights. A great harm is being done to a generation of young adults by withholding the full access of their constitutional rights while in high school, then expecting them to be full participants in a democratic society when they are older.”

—Gene Policinski, Executive Director First Amendment Center


Also see:
Why Kids Flunk History
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL / Free Speech Radio News 15may02

 

It is highly recommended that you visit http://firstamendment.jideas.org for further information

 

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