Leaving the First Amendment Behind

by , , Mar 23, 2005, 8:00 AM
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Our high schools are leaving the First Amendment behind. A new study says that an alarmingly high percentage of high school students have little knowledge of freedom of speech - unless, of course, it comes to the racy lyrics on the iPods welded to their ears. It says that we're growing a generation of Americans who actually welcome censorship of our media.

What gives!

Is this a genuine problem or just a generational hiccup?

I've asked myself that question for weeks now, ever since our organization was part of a national release of a $1 million study of the First Amendment attitudes of 112,000 high school students and more than 8,500 teachers, principals, and administrators. My answer: yes, the First Amendment is in sorry shape when it comes to our next generation of journalists and citizens. Our schools have left the First Amendment behind, and our kids don't seem to mind.

If you missed the headlines, the study commissioned by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and conducted by researchers at the University of Connecticut shows that young Americans have a shocking lack of knowledge about the nation's basic freedoms, even at a time when tens of thousands of their peers are risking their lives for freedom in the desert wastes and cities in Iraq and Afghanistan. It makes you wonder what they think freedom is.

The question is particularly applicable last week, as the nation's media celebrates Sunshine Week, a time to illuminate the people's right to know about the government and its doings.

Consider the results of the high school study:

" 73 percent of students polled say they don't know how they feel about the First Amendment or take their rights for granted. " More than 30 percent would welcome press censorship and think the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees. " 75 percent incorrectly believe that flag burning is illegal. " 50 percent incorrectly think the government can restrict indecent material on the Internet.

"These results are not disturbing, they are dangerous," says Hodding Carter, the president and CEO of the The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, an organization that promotes journalist excellence and rights to a free press. "Ignorance about the basics of this free society is a danger to our nation's future."

In some ways, we shouldn't be surprised.

We've regimented this new generation, controlling their every move - from soccer practices to music lessons to the kind of algebra they take as 9th graders. Maybe our kids haven't yet learned to think for themselves.

We've sat by idly, as schools have eliminated civics education. Today, only 29 percent of our high schools offer some kind of civics or government curriculum, according to the Institute for Civic Education.

We've been quiet as schools have silenced student media, dismissing youth voices as a nuisance. Parents have been silent as principals operate their high schools as personal dictatorships, not the democracies that would prepare their students to understand their rights as future citizens.

We journalists have abandoned our responsibility to develop and nurture the next generation of reporters and editors.

Dennis Ryerson, editor of The Indianapolis Star, has been a strong voice in shining attention on this problem as dozens of newspapers have latched onto the issue. "Keep the students compliant, and they will grow up to be compliant adults," he wrote in a Sunday column. "Continue to erode appreciation for the First Amendment, and just maybe that nettlesome provision someday will go away. Life then could be free of conflict and easier to manage. Like it was, say, in Afghanistan under the Taliban, or in Iraq under Saddam Hussein."

In a new book, "Tuned Out: Why Americans Under 40 Don't Follow the News," author David Mindich talks about the slide toward ignorance among post-Baby Boomers. Mindich, a professor at St. Michael's College in Winooski, Vt., argues that there is a shocking amount of news illiteracy in both Generations X and Y.

Mindich points out that tomorrow's leaders have become as passive as ever and have little appreciation for current events or quality journalism.

We have to act - on a broad front.

We must encourage our schools, school boards, and administrators to make the First Amendment the first priority. Bring civics back. Change the curriculum. Encourage non-fiction writing and reading. And current events! After all, isn't knowledge of citizenship and our democracy as important as the standards tests that the Bush Administration is pushing for math and science?

Principals must back off and consider our basic freedoms as much a priority as good public relations and safety. Listen to student voices. Encourage expression. Make students a part of the running of a school. Parents have to speak out. Do they really want to raise a new generation of compliant, docile kids?

College educators must reach out and work with high schools. They must also look to scholastic journalism and the First Amendment as areas of scholarly research. Local newspapers must mentor students in their communities. Show the First Amendment in action. Point out the great heritage and value of a free and responsible press. Help schools start newspapers and other media. And yes, our high schoolers have to be part of the solution.

Put down your iPod for a minute. Put aside that romance novel and pick up a newspaper. Turn off "Fear Factor" and embrace real life. Remember that Jon Stewart is a comedian, not a journalist.

Unless of course, you want to continue to be left behind!

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