Student Q&A highlights survey release

Friday, July 20, 2012

WASHINGTON — Audience questions during the release of the 2012 State of the First Amendment survey at the National Press Club July 17 reflected concerns over the future of news media and widespread ignorance of basic First Amendment rights.

First Amendment Center President Ken Paulson and Senior Vice President Gene Policinski presented the survey’s findings. Although a record 65% of respondents could identify freedom of speech as one of the five freedoms protected by the First Amendment, only 28% could name freedom of religion, and smaller percentages the rights of press, assembly and petition. Other questions gauged public opinion about current First Amendment issues, such as recording police activity, online piracy and unlimited corporate campaign spending.

A group of 51 high school seniors attended the event as part of the annual Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference, a program funded by the Freedom Forum for students from every state and the District of Columbia interested in journalism and demonstrating qualities of “free spirit.” Questions from these students and the rest of the audience, written down and passed to the speakers, centered on several topics, most prominently how to preserve the First Amendment and educate the public about it.

“As journalists, how can we strive to protect the First Amendment?” one person asked.

Paulson replied that journalism, despite often being vilified, is “a profession that at its best is a cornerstone of democracy” and that journalists need to stand up for all five First Amendment freedoms in order to preserve them.

“What do you think is the biggest threat to the First Amendment?” read another question.

Paulson said he feared that despite the importance of the First Amendment, too many “take it for granted” and that “those freedoms that we don’t fully understand or embrace are the most vulnerable.”

Policinski said that although Americans were unlikely to see a dictator strip away our rights, politicians may try to seduce us into giving them up slowly.

Several questions dealt with how to educate students and others about their rights. Paulson supported education as “the key to all things” and pointed to the 1 for All national campaign and the Free to Tweet scholarship competition as efforts to raise awareness. Policinski encouraged the students to get involved in reporting on local politics, saying that “engaged citizens are the ultimate authority.”

Paulson also reminded the audience that aspiring journalists needed a basic knowledge of spelling and grammar.  “One of the most basic gifts you can have as a young journalist is subject-verb agreement,” said Paulson.

Another popular topic was the changing media landscape in the digital age. Paulson and Policinski expressed optimism about the future of journalism, noting that while the media business model has encountered great difficulties, audiences have grown exponentially.

“This is truly the Golden Age of American journalism,” said Paulson.

Policinski dismissed fears that today’s youth relied excessively on comedy shows like “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart or “The Colbert Report” for news, calling the trend merely one of many “little anomalies” as media transition to new forms.

Paulson and Policinski also noted benefits of tweeting and texting in news coverage, saying it takes talent to condense a thought to its essence and that many worthwhile tweets link readers to longer stories on the web.

One question about whether or not public schools should be able to censor student newspapers drew strong responses from both speakers. Paulson and Policinski expressed their opposition to the 1988 Supreme Court decision Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, which gave schools greater ability to restrict certain forms of student speech.

Policinski affirmed that student journalists needed to take their jobs seriously, as mistakes or sloppy reporting can make censorship efforts more likely to succeed. “Bad cases make bad law,” he said.

Paulson spoke of his own experiences writing editorials in his high school’s newspaper against school policies, lamenting that post-Hazelwood restrictions had resulted in a generation that has been taught that power can silence journalism.

The event ended with the question that most stirred audience reaction: “Which First Amendment right do you think is the most important and why?”

Policinski defended all five equally, calling it “an unanswerable question.”

Paulson agreed that all five freedoms are important, but singled out freedom of religion as a “core commitment” that “set the tone for the kind of nation we were going to become.”

The First Amendment Center sponsors the State of the First Amendment survey, which has been conducted annually since 1997. This year 1,006 adults were surveyed by telephone between June 6-11.

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