Our first-of-its-kind exploration of the future of the First Amendment among American high school students—a highly visible study of 112,000 students and 8,000 teachers in over 300 high schools—suggests a fragile future for key constitutional freedoms while also pointing us to potential remedies. This study, “The Future of the First Amendment,” which was released earlier this year, arrived at a timely moment in American history, on the heels of a national election and amid a war the President is using, by his account, to spread democratic freedoms. The results drew remarkable media attention, which tended to focus on one of the more fearful statistics to emerge from the study: Only 51 percent of 9th to 12th graders agree that newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of stories—in other words, nearly half entertain the idea of newspaper censorship.

Beyond that flashpoint finding, the study allows for a more thorough understanding of today’s high school students and can point us to potential remedies. The research also suggests ways to improve support for the First Amendment. While many of the findings raise concern, some are not so bad. Some are even encouraging. Most of all, the results should be viewed within the context of the history of the First Amendment, which faced challenges—some would say it was compromised—as soon as it was adopted.

First Amendment Challenges

One of the first acts of the first Congress in 1789 was to append a Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution, which, among other things, explicitly denied Congress the ability to tamper with Americans’ rights of free expression. Indeed, through the course of our history, Americans and their leaders have proclaimed a commitment to freedom and liberty. Most recently, President Bush, in his second inaugural address, justified the Iraqi and Afghani military operations as a vehicle to spread freedom and liberty throughout the world.

Despite a long history of veneration to these values, freedom of expression has met with a number of challenges. Not long after adoption of the First Amendment, President John Adams and the Federalist Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, severely thwarting the freedom to speak out against government. Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, the internment of Japanese Americans during Franklin Roosevelt’s administration after Pearl Harbor, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s “red scare,” and Attorney General John Ashcroft’s aggressive implementation of the USA Patriot Act represent just a few of the more notable breaches to liberty in America.

Like any value in our society, the health and vitality of freedom and liberty are largely dependent upon the public’s attention to, appreciation for, and support of them. When Americans are willing to compromise freedom of expression in return for a sense of being more secure, then government officials can more readily take action to curtail freedom. Public fear of Communism allowed McCarthy to tread on people’s liberty, just as fear of terrorism allowed Ashcroft to curb freedoms.

The real protection of free expression rights lies not in the words of the First Amendment. Rather, it lies in the people’s willingness to appreciate and support those rights. That idea led the Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center to commission an annual survey on public knowledge, appreciation and support for free expression rights since 1997 to gauge the health and well-being of the First Amendment.

If public opinion is a good measure of the First Amendment’s well-being, then its annual checkup has been fraught with health problems.

  • While more than 9-in-10 agree that “people should be allowed to express unpopular opinions,” a paltry 4-in-10 believe that high school students should be able to report on controversial issues in school newspapers without the consent of school officials.
  • More than one-third say the press has too much freedom.
  • Fewer than 6-in-10 say that musicians should be able to sings songs with lyrics that may be offensive to some.

These annual checkups have shown over time that half of adults think that flag burning as a method of protest should not be tolerated. In general, the surveys have revealed that the public holds low support for, a lack of appreciation for, and dangerously low levels of knowledge of free expression rights. Is it no wonder, then, that the suspension of liberty in this land of freedom has been so readily accomplished by its leaders from time to time?

It was these rather anemic annual checkups that convinced the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to commission this unique survey of American high school students and to begin a wider discussion about how to strengthen the polity’s commitment to the democratic ideal of freedom and liberty.

What follows are some findings from the Knight Foundation survey of high school students that explain, in part, why Americans should be concerned about the First Amendment’s future.

  • Thirty-six percent of high school students openly admit that they take their First Amendment rights for granted and another 37 percent say they never thought enough about this to have an opinion.
  • Seventy-five percent incorrectly believe that it is illegal to burn the flag as a means of political protest, and 49 percent wrongly think that government has the right to restrict indecent material on the Internet.
  • A source of the lack of support for free press rights might be due to the fact that only four percent of students trust journalists to tell the truth all of the time.
  • Thirty-five percent say the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees, and 32 percent think the press has too much freedom to do what it wants.

Proposing Some Remedies

This is a bleak picture of what may be in store for the First Amendment as this group matures into adulthood. More importantly, however, a number of findings from the study suggest policies or actions that might better prepare students to value and use their constitutional freedoms. While the suggestions below grow out of findings that are based on correlations, not causation, the logic of the policy ideas holds up against both our experience and our understanding of the data.

  1. Instruction on the First Amendment matters. Education works! Students who have taken classes that deal with journalism, the role of the media in society, and the First Amendment exhibit higher levels of knowledge and support for free expression rights than those who haven’t. The problem, of course, is that the strong trend toward math and science and “teaching to the standardized test” has crowded out instruction that could help students develop good citizenship skills. The less the schools focus on developing strong citizens, the weaker our democracy becomes. The positive lesson to learn from this is that through enhancements to the high school curriculum, students can become better prepared to value and use their freedoms.
  2. Use leads to greater appreciation. When students are given an opportunity to use their freedoms, they develop a better appreciation for them. The Knight project found that students who are engaged in extracurricular student media (such as school newspaper, Internet sites, etc.) are more aware and much more supportive of free expression rights.
  3. School leaders need lessons, too. Most high school principals need to be reminded of the value of experiential learning and its implications for the future of the First Amendment. While 80 percent of principals agree that “newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of a story,” only 39 percent say their students should be afforded the same rights for publishing in the school newspaper. Granted, principals have many issues to deal with (like parents and school board members calling and asking how they could have ever allowed a story to be printed in a school paper). But if we are to expect students to mature into responsible democratic citizens, they should be given the freedom to express themselves and act responsibly while in school.
  4. Place the issues in the context of their daily lives. The project suggests that, as with most people, when issues affecting one’s freedom are brought close to home, students are best able to discern the true meaning and value of freedom. When asked if they agreed or disagreed with this statement—“Musicians should be allowed to sing songs with lyrics that might be offensive to others”—70 percent agreed (only 43 percent of principals and 57 percent of adults agree with this). Music matters to many young people. When this form of free expression is challenged, most students come to its defense. The lesson, of course, is that in teaching students about the virtues of free expression, showing how it relates to things important to them will best instill in students why it is so important to the life of a democracy.

The future of the First Amendment is, at best, tenuous. As the current group of high school students takes on their important role as citizens in our democracy, their lack of appreciation and support for free expression rights will provide a ripe atmosphere for government to further intrude on these freedoms. Many institutions in society should shoulder part of the responsibility to ensure good citizenship skills for our youth. Parents, religious institutions, the media, as well as leadership from public officials, just to name a few. But the public schools play an especially important role in socializing youngsters in how to be responsible citizens, and through the schools the future health and vitality of the First Amendment might be restored.

Ken Dautrich is chairman of the department of public policy at the University of Connecticut. He directed the Knight study, along with David Yalof, another professor at the university. Dautrich and Yalof ’s book, “The First Amendment and the Media in the Court of Public Opinion,” was published by Cambridge University Press in 2002. John Bare is vice president for strategic planning and evaluation at the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation in Atlanta. Findings from the First Amendment Center’s poll are available at www. freedomforum.org.

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