Teens: good news, bad news on First Amendment

Friday, September 22, 2006

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The First Amendment gets the classic “good news/bad news” treatment this week
in reports of a followup study of teenagers conducted by the Knight

The sampling of about 15,000 students and about 900 teachers across the
nation finds:

  • The number of students who reported having taken a class that dealt with
    the First Amendment was up 14% over two years ago, from 58% to 72%. Good

  • The number of students who agreed with the statement that “the First
    Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees” also was up, by 10 points,
    from 35% to 45%. Bad news.

    But at the same time, students were slightly — sometimes only very slightly — more inclined to support freer speech for musicians, school newspapers and even
    the general press. More good news.

    Still, teens tend to know less than adults about the First Amendment,
    researcher Ken Dautrich told USA TODAY in talking about the Knight study he
    conducted. More bad news — though right in line with studies including the First
    Amendment Center’s own State of the First Amendment annual report on adults (which, I should note, has
    been conducted since 1997 by Dautrich and his research colleague, David

    How “less” is “even less than adults”? Well, how low is the floor? Generally,
    only one in 100 adults — sometimes two of 100 — can name all five freedoms in
    the First Amendment.

    STOP READING HERE FOR A MOMENT: Can you name the five?

    Since you’re on a First Amendment Center Web page, I’ll assume I should say, “Congratulations, you beat ‘America’.”

    The five, as you already know, are, in order: Religion, speech, press,
    assembly and petition. (No, no, not “right to bear arms.” Grab a copy of the
    Bill of Rights and read on … that’s the Second Amendment!)

    So why don’t more adults and teens know and appreciate our five basic
    freedoms? The glib response is that we take our freedoms for granted, so we
    don’t pay attention to the list: a kind of “I may not know their names, but I
    know them when I see them” approach.

    That would be more good news, I think: We appreciate our freedoms — we just
    can’t recite them, even out of order.

    But here’s that bad-news aspect again. At least generations of Americans
    prior to now experienced some contact at a young age with those fundamental
    rights. From those alive today who can recall the echoes of the suffragist
    movement into the 1920s to those who lived through the civil rights battles of
    the '50s and '60s or Vietnam protests of the '60s and '70s, the power of free
    speech and free press, the role of all five freedoms, were a part of their life

    What of teens today? Court decisions hem in student expression by handing
    administrators legal tools to shut down speech. Focus on measurable results in
    math, science and reading combines with budget crunches to kill off student
    newspapers. And textbooks often give short shrift to basics about the
    Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

    At least the study’s second part found young readers gravitating to Web news
    outlets – but perhaps at the expense of traditional news media, which now
    include television as well as newspapers and magazines.

    So why wonder why teens don’t appreciate and defend their First Amendment
    rights in greater numbers than adults?

    The bad news is they don’t. I suppose the good news from the latest reports
    is that a few more do.

    The Knight report, parts one and two, is available at www.jideas.org.

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