Lessons in Freedom: The First Amendment in America’s high schools

Friday, March 30, 2001

A pop quiz: How many First Amendment freedoms can you name?

If you’re quick to name freedom of speech and then find yourself a little stumped, you’re not alone. In our most recent State of the First Amendment survey, we found that while 60% of Americans can name freedom of speech, the other fundamental freedoms are recognized in significantly smaller percentages:

  • 16%      Freedom of religion
  • 12%      Freedom of the press
  • 9%        Right of assembly
  • 2%        Right to petition

That’s a little surprising. After all, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights are staples of American education. How did we lose sight of the source of these basic freedoms?

For the answer, we’ve turned to America’s school teachers and administrators. In a new poll co-sponsored with the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, we asked educators about their own understanding of the First Amendment and how these basic rights are being taught in the nation’s schools.

A majority of both teachers and administrators told us that schools are doing a good or excellent job of teaching about these fundamental freedoms. Yet, while they fared better than the general public, only one educator in four could name more than one First Amendment freedom. One in five couldn’t identify a single free-expression right.

So why — absent an appearance on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” — should the specifics of the First Amendment really matter to the nation’s teachers and administrators?

In truth, the rote memorization of First Amendment freedoms is far less important than respecting and protecting those rights in the nation’s schools. The First Amendment only applies to public schools, but giving students a deeper appreciation for freedom of expression and its role in making this nation so special should be a priority for all teachers.

All too often, First Amendment controversies erupt in high schools, yielding plenty of heat and precious little light. Consider these recent examples:

  • When a parent objected to a single song played on a radio on a school bus in Mishawaka, Ind., last month, school administrators imposed a ban on music in all school buildings and buses throughout the district. Students walked out of class in protest.
  • Last week, several high school honor students were suspended for publishing an underground newspaper that school officials described as “hurtful” toward other students. In imposing discipline, the principal of Council Rock High School in Bucks County, Pa., said he was motivated in part by school shootings in Santi, Calif., and Williamsport, Pa.
  • After Mission Viejo High school in California refused to recognize the Fellowship of Christian Athletes as a legitimate student club, students sued. Last month, the 4th District Court of Appeals ruled that “merely granting the FCA the same privileges enjoyed by all other campus clubs offends neither the United States Constitution nor that of this state.”

The common denominators in most First Amendment controversies in high schools: a provocative incident involving one student that leads to a crackdown on all students, or — most frequently in freedom of religion cases — misapplication of First Amendment principles by educators who are misreading the law. It’s not enough to tell students what the First Amendment says. We need to show them what it means.

And yet our new survey indicates that many educators are leery of giving students too much freedom.

  • By a 2-to-1 ratio, educators say high school journalists should not be able to report on controversial issues in their student newspapers without the approval of school authorities.
  • Eight in 10 educators would prohibit the posting of content on student Web sites that others might find offensive.
  • About 40% would deny public high school students the right to share religious materials with other students.

What lessons are we teaching future journalists when we say that reporting about the school administration is off limits? How free is free expression when the right to build a Web site is conditional on not offending anyone? What message do we send about freedom of religion when we prohibit the exchange of literature that reflects our most deeply held values?

Faced with tight budgets, crowded classrooms and increasing concerns about school safety, America’s administrators have their hands full. While protecting the physical safety of students, however, administrators must also ensure that schools are a safe haven for free expression — including expression of challenging and uncomfortable ideas.

None of us learned to drive by reading a book. We can’t teach freedom — or the responsibilities that go with it — unless we’re willing to let young people get behind the wheel.

The First Amendment is not just another chapter in a history book; its freedoms can’t be taught in a single week in a social studies class.

It is, in fact, an extraordinary gift from the Founding Fathers, reminding us that our right to express ourselves is only as safe as the views of those with whom we disagree.

In the end, that may be the most valuable lesson of all.

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