New generation blasé about old freedoms

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Quick quiz. Can you name the five freedoms of the First Amendment? If you're stumped, you're in good company - 99 percent of American adults can't either.

That lack of familiarity with one of the cornerstones of American democracy has now found its mirror in a recent study of high school students. The largest survey to date of more than 112,000 students in ninth through 12th grades reveals basic misconceptions and a disheartening lack of interest in what it means, what it protects, and why it matters.

For instance, 75 percent of students think flag burning is against the law (it's not); and 49 percent say the government can legally restrict indecent material on the Internet (it can't). Add to that the students' surprisingly restrictive view of First Amendment freedoms - more than one third think the Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees; and only 51 percent think newspapers should be allowed to publish stories without government approval - and the land of the free starts to sound like another country.

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Although educators and rights advocates say the results are alarming, few seem surprised.

"We now have the proof of what we would intellectually assume, which is: The reason adults don't know much about the First Amendment is that as teenagers they are not taught much about the First Amendment," says Gene Policinski, executive director of the First Amendment Center. Funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the survey based many of its questions on the annual survey of adults conducted by the First Amendment Center.

To teach those freedoms requires more than a few lines in a textbook, Mr. Policinski says. The survey showed, for instance, that students who had participated in media-related activities were more likely to think people should be allowed to express unpopular opinions.

Diana Hadley has seen it firsthand. The assistant director of the Indiana High School Press Association, who has taught journalism for 33 years, says hands-on experience is key. Learning retention improves if you make it practical, she says. Students get a chance to write, hear feedback, and understand the impact of their words.

But it's perhaps a truism that the positive influence of media studies is only as good as the experience itself. "If, as at many schools, the administration runs their newspaper like Pravda, they are probably not coming away with much more understanding or knowledge than those students who never worked on a publication in the first place," says Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, which provides free legal advice to high school and college journalists about the rights and responsibilities of the First Amendment. Student papers need to offer real journalism, not propaganda, he adds.

He cites the survey finding that even among students with experience on a newspaper, when asked if a student publication should be required to get administrative approval before covering controversial issues, 25 percent said yes. Mr. Goodman says this is a frightening reflection of what's being taught in schools.

School publications, however, are not carbon copies of the outside press. In the 1988 Hazelwood case, the US Supreme Court ruled that students were not entitled to broad First Amendment protection and schools could censor content.

While the quality of media programs and student newspapers may vary, fewer schools are offering them at all. The reasons are broad but include budget crunches, pressures from standardized testing, and resistance from principals. As Goodman puts it, student newspapers are "headache-inducing in the minds of many school administrators." They are also extracurricular, which makes them more trimmable when funding is tight.

Ms. Hadley sees a longer trend pushing against media courses, one that has become acute in the past five years. The study bears out that perception: 26 percent of schools have no newspaper and 40 percent of those eliminated it in the past five years.

Goodman worries about a parallel challenge. Over the past 20 years, he says, schools have slowly created a more repressive environment. Since the mid-1980s, he says he has seen a deterioration in the amount of freedom that high schools students are given when it comes to expressing themselves.

Creating an atmosphere where students can speak freely, contribute, and be involved in the decisionmaking, is crucial to their understanding of the First Amendment, Policinski adds. "If you wonder why someone at 19 doesn't know much about free expression," he says, "if they've not been allowed [to freely express themselves] when they were 14 through 18, why should we expect them to suddenly flower at age 19?"

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