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August 4, 2005

teaching the First Amendment

According to a Knight Foundation study released earlier this year (based on more than 100,000 surveys) only 51 percent of high school students believe that "newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of stories." This kind of finding brings to mind Judge Learned Hand's caution, delivered to a large crowd in Central Park on I Am an American Day, May 21, 1944--two weeks before D-Day. Judge Hand said, "I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws, and upon courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it."

If young people don't believe in the First Amendment, free speech may not be safe for long, especially since attitudes toward rights (and other large social issues) tend to form in adolescence and remain pretty durable.

However, good work is underway. Knight is behind a new Teach the First Amendment website that provides access to free course materials and lesson plans, a quiz of student knowledge, links to advocacy work in support of civic education (including the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools), and assistance in helping to start student media projects. The last element is important: the Knight study found that students who were personally involved in newspapers or broadcast work were more supportive of free speech.

August 4, 2005 11:40 AM | category: advocating civic education | Comments


Comment from Alex Frankel, by email:

Going back to the survey, the high schoolers were more liberal about the rights of school newspapers and musicians, somewhat less liberal about "expressing unpopular opinions", and much less liberal on the government/newspaper question. So on issues with which they have some experience, they don't necessarily tend towards illiberal beliefs. And I wonder if the response on the newspaper question just reflects a misunderstanding of the context behind it.

I'm about as pro-first amendment as anyone can be, but are there *some* stories that should require government permission to print? Of course. Newspapers shouldn't print stories about our tactical plans during a war, for instance, without checking first with the army. And, outside of the immediate "government approval" issue, there are plenty of other things newspapers shouldn't print. They shouldn't advocate the murder of local citizens.

When you or I read "Newspapers should be allowed to publish freely", we know how to read this. We "know" that the statement is really about whether the media should be able to criticize and investigate the government. But some high schoolers who lack context might reasonably answer that newspapers shouldn't be able to publish entirely freely, even if they fully support the first amendment.

August 5, 2005 9:44 PM | Comments (2) | posted by Peter Levine

It's absolutely right that students are more supportive of freedom for student publications than for "adult" newspapers. Also, I agree that the difference probably arises because they are less familiar with the adult press; they don't realize what kinds of legitimate news might provoke government censorship. Still, I think their lack of familiarity is a problem.

August 5, 2005 9:48 PM | Comments (2) | posted by Peter Levine

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