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May 11, 2004

students and the First Amendment

The First Amendment Schools program would probably surprise many people--especially reporters--who examined it closely. One of its major sponsors is the First Amendment Center, which exists to advocate civil liberties. Its very name implies a commitment to protect and enhance liberties of speech, press, assembly, religion, and petition. Therefore, one might expect that First Amendment Schools would protect civil liberties within their own walls: for instance, by allowing student newspapers to publish without prior review, or by tolerating offensive t-shirts. Participating schools might also promote respect for the First Amendment by teaching students to understand and value a free press, free exercise of religion, and so on.

Indeed, many First Amendment Schools do these things. I don't think that a school with a very restrictive speech code could participate. However, participating schools do a lot more than grant rights to their own students. They also ask students to learn and practice virtues and obligations of citizenship, such as deliberation, tolerance, and concern for the common good.

I think this is great, because I would like high school graduates to understand the obligations as well as the rights of the press. Journalists do not have to do anything to earn their freedom; they have inalienable rights that students should understand and value. Nevertheless, as consumers and citizens, we can expect reporters to do a great deal.

I personally think that reporters, especially in the broadcast media, are doing a miserable job of supporting our democracy and civil society. We might, for example, expect that a multi-million-dollar industry devoted to collecting important public information might have focused on terrorism before 9-11. There were plenty of public reports that could have alerted them to the importance of this topic. However, as Nightline's producer, Tom Bettag, said recently:

If there were warnings throughout government about al Qaeda, let the record show that on the three network evening news broadcasts that summer and Nightline, the name al Qaeda wasnt spokennot a single time. The record will show that on the week of August 20, three weeks before the attacks, the story most covered on the three network evening news broadcasts was Gary Condit. It got twice as much coverage as the next story (Quoted in PressThink).

In this case, the complaint is a failure to grapple with substance. In other cases, the news media can be charged with ignoring legitimate points of view, with sensationalism, with exploitation, with bias, and with many other sins. I wouldn't want high school graduates necessarily to share my negative view of the press, but I would hope that they'd become critical readers and viewers. Most of all, I would hope that some of them would respond to the failures of the mainstream media by creating alternatives of their own. In the age of the blog, you don't need a printing press to become a news producer.

The genius of the First Amendment Schools project is to put the First Amendment in an appropriate context, without compromising individual rights but without forgetting civic obligations.

May 11, 2004 1:15 PM | category: advocating civic education | Comments

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