Survey Finds Students Ignorant Of Basic First Amendment Rights

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WASHINGTON (Talon News) — In a new study of high school students ironically released the day after the historic democratic elections in Iraq, basic freedoms such as the freedom of speech and of the press found in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution were found to be unimportant to them.

Commissioned by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and conducted last Spring by the University of Connecticut, the survey of 112,003 high school students, 327 principals, and 7,889 teachers from 544 public and private high schools found an ignorance concerning fundamental constitutional rights in the United States by the leaders of the next generation.


It is said to be the largest such study of its kind to be conducted and cost $1 million to conduct.

According to the survey, more than one-third of respondents believe newspapers need “government approval” of their stories before they can be published with only about half stating they believe in unfettered freedom of the press. Another 13 percent said they did not care.

When asked if they believe the press has “too much freedom,” again one-third said it does and 37 percent said it has just the right amount. One out of ten respondents said it has too little.

Additionally, three out of four respondents said they believe flag burning is against the law. However, a 1989 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court found it to be protected free speech under the First Amendment.

Hodding Carter III, who serves as the president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, reacted to the survey results by declaring them as not only “disturbing” but also “dangerous.”

“Ignorance about the basics of this free society is a danger to our nation’s future,” Carter exclaimed in a synopsis of the survey.

Analysis in the report by Journalism Education Association Executive Director Linda Puntney shows that high school students are lacking in their education about the U.S. Constitution.

“Schools don’t do enough to teach the First Amendment,” Puntney lamented in the report. “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.”

These survey results have renewed debate by state and federal lawmakers over the importance of civics studies in the schools.

The survey found that the absence of basic government tenets in our schools has led to a lack of understanding of the democracy our forefathers fought and died to defend.

But not everyone is stunned by the study’s findings.

Jack Dvorak, who serves as the director of the High School Journalism Institute at Indiana University in Bloomington, said many established journalists are “often unaware of a lot of the freedoms that might be associated with the First Amendment.”

“Kids aren’t learning enough about the First Amendment in history, civics or English classes,” Dvorak remarked in a statement.

He continued, “It also tracks closely with recent findings of adults’ attitudes. It’s part of our Constitution, so this should be part of a formal education.”

Other interesting findings in the survey include three-fourths of respondents admit they take their First Amendment rights for granted and half of respondents think the government has the ability to censor Internet content.

More information on the 90-page “The Future of the First Amendment” survey can be found at The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s High School Initiative web site.

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution states, “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.”