Heartland students show impressive grasp of First Amendment

Sunday, October 31, 2010

OK, so at some disputed level, neither candidate for the U.S. Senate in Delaware recently stood out in terms of basic knowledge of what the First Amendment actually says.

Then there are the results a few weeks ago from another State of the First Amendment survey by the First Amendment Center, which again show very few Americans — this year, just six in 100 — can name the five freedoms contained in the amendment’s 45 words.

Given all that, it’s good to be reminded that some in this nation do know what is in the 219-year-old amendment — because they study it.

Take the eighth-grade classes at Lebanon (Ind.) Middle School, where veteran teacher Donald Polston and his classes explore the text of, meaning of, and current controversies around our basic freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition.

In a recent First Amendment Center visit there, in speaking to six classes through the day, we explored issues as diverse as school uniforms and dress codes, national campaign-finance laws, protests at military funerals and the hotly debated issue of proposed mosques in New York City, Tennessee and elsewhere.

Each of the classes began with a simple question: What are the five freedoms in the First Amendment? Each time the answers came back quickly, and from many students. That alone was refreshing — even exhilarating. And then came the students’ questions.

What about freedom of expression when school dress codes or uniforms are mandated?

Should people be able to protest at funerals under the banner of free speech, or should authorities be able to stop such intrusive demonstrations under privacy laws?

And why should corporations be able to spend money in direct support or opposition to political candidates when we know that big money can taint politics?

Though you might not find students such as those in Don Polston’s U.S. history classes in every school system, they and their school were good “heartland” representatives of much of the nation. Some came from families with relatives serving in the military. One had lost a family member in combat. A quick sampling showed that most kept up with the news, with a high percentage getting news online. Lebanon is a smaller town, with distinctly rural tones, but just 30 minutes from metropolitan Indianapolis. And between the Web and occasional trips like the one teacher Polston just led to Washington, D.C., these early teens were as aware of the larger world as many older counterparts.

As you might expect, there were disagreements – as apparently there are on the U.S. Supreme Court — about free-speech protection for demonstrations at military funerals. But uniformly, the students thought it was rude and offensive, regardless of the message, to intrude on such moments of private grief.

And yes, they would apply the rights of assembly and petition in discussing and perhaps protesting the particulars of school dress codes — from limits on certain types of clothing to an outright ban on caps.

Interestingly, these students had already test-driven their rights and responsibilities in challenging the familiar ban on chewing gum: By combining a student-government request to administrators to allow gum-chewing on the condition of an extended test of whether that would add to in-school litter problems (it didn’t), they used the rights of free speech, assembly and petition to make a change in their school world.

Would that those thousands who gathered for the D.C. rallies seeking change sponsored by Glenn Beck, and just days ago by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, have such positive effects in our world. Or even just have returned home knowing there are five freedoms in the First Amendment: religion, speech, press, assembly and petition.

Don Polston’s academic website closes with this thought: “Our greatest heroes are ordinary people doing extraordinary things.” When it comes to First Amendment heroes, we ought to include Mr. Polston and his students.

Gene Policinski is vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, 1207 18th Ave. S., Nashville, Tenn., 37212. Web: www.firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: gpolicinski@fac.org.