Constitutionally Challenged  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   April/May 2005

Constitutionally Challenged   

High school students either donít support, or donít understand, the First Amendment.

By Rachael Jackson
Jackson is a former AJR editorial assistant.     


For journalists fretting about the media's plummeting reputation, a new survey on support for the First Amendment in high schools brings more bad tidings.

More than a third of the nation's high school students think First Amendment rights go too far. Almost three-quarters take the First Amendment for granted or don't know how they feel about it. And more students than adults believe the government should approve news stories, according to a study commissioned by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The survey "did not so much shock or surprise but really [did] drive home that this is a nationwide phenomenon," says David Yalof, the report's co-principal investigator and political science professor at the University of Connecticut. Yalof and his research team surveyed more than 100,000 students, nearly 8,000 teachers and about 500 principals and administrators over two years for "The Future of the First Amendment" study.

The conclusion that high schools are failing to nurture an appreciation for freedom of the press has media advocates calling for a change of culture in American schools. They say students need more journalism opportunities and that everyone from parents to administrators should adjust their attitudes.

"It's really about an institution responding--not just creating another civics class or revising a textbook," says Gene Policinski, executive director of the First Amendment Center.

But that might be easier said than done. While the survey found most administrators support journalism learning as a priority, less than 20 percent said it was a high priority. Many say tight finances limit student media programs: 21 percent of high schools offer no extracurricular student media options, and 40 percent of those lacking student newspapers eliminated them within the past five years.

Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, says part of the solution could lie outside high school walls. "What is the commercial media going to do to respond to this?" he asks. "For too long they've pretended that First Amendment issues in schools were child's play, if they recognized them at all."

Such behavior could come back to haunt the media, Goodman says. "If young people have this much disdain and disinterest in First Amendment values, it suggests that when the media attempt to fight for First Amendment values in the years to come, they're going to have a very hard time finding much support for their efforts."

Goodman encourages local news professionals to talk to student journalists about how much the school administration controls the content of their papers. Censorship is rampant in some schools, he says, and covering the issue in community media could generate greater support for First Amendment freedoms in schools.

Although the study's results mirror smaller-scale surveys of adults by the First Amendment Center, Policinski doesn't view the findings as a "desolate verdict on freedom in America," noting a "lack of knowledge or even an indifference doesn't necessarily indicate that people don't hold these values dear."

Indeed, the investigators found more support for First Amendment issues among high school students when asked about restricting musical lyrics or pre-approving news stories in their school papers. Fifty-eight percent think student newspapers should be able to report on controversial issues without the approval of school authorities--that support drops to 25 percent among principals.

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