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What First Amendment?
by William Fisher
February 9, 2005

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While authoritarian states in much of the world are routinely jailing journalists and others for expressing their views, a substantial proportion of U.S. high school students believes the government should censor the American press and that the free speech protections of the Bill of Rights First Amendment go “too far.”

These are among the findings of a two-year $1 million study of 100,000 high school students, nearly 8,000 teachers, and more than 500 administrators and principals, carried out in more than 500 high schools by the University of Connecticut (UCONN). The study, entitled, “The Future of the First Amendment,” was commissioned by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Hodding Carter III, president of the Foundation, said, “These results are not only disturbing -they are dangerous. Ignorance about the basics of this free society is a danger to our nation’s future.” Dr. David Yalof and Dr. Kenneth Dautrich of the University of Connecticut conducted the research for the foundation, which promotes excellence in journalism.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1787, is part of the Bill of Rights, which many of the authors insisted on as a condition for adoption. It guarantees freedom of speech, the press, religion, assembly, and the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances. Most Constitutional scholars believe all other American freedoms flow from this part of the Constitution.

Among the survey’s other findings:

* Nearly three-fourths of high school students either do not know how they feel about the First Amendment or admit they take it for granted.

* Seventy-five percent erroneously think flag burning is illegal.

*Half believe the government can censor the Internet.

*More than a third think the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees.

UCONN’S Center for Survey and Analysis, which carried out the research, found that while 74% strongly agree that Americans should be allowed to express unpopular opinions, only 26% approve of the right to express views in public that might be offensive to religious groups, while 36% strongly disagree. Only 18% strongly agree that it is acceptable to say in public what might be offensive to racial groups, while 46% strongly disagree.

The survey found that educators are failing to give high school students an appreciation of First Amendment’s guarantees. It suggests that First Amendment rights would be universally known if they were classroom staples. It suggested that the more students are exposed to the First Amendment and use the news media in the classroom, and the more involved they are in student journalism, the greater their appreciation of First Amendment rights.

As reported by Bob Herbert in The New York Times, “Among those students who have taken courses dealing with the media or the First Amendment … 87 percent believe people should be allowed to express unpopular opinions. Among students who have not taken such courses, however, the number fell to 68 percent.”

The study found that a quarter of U.S. schools offer no media programs to students. Nearly all school principals surveyed agreed students should learn about journalism, but said financial constraints block the expansion of media programs.

Eric Newton, UCONN’S Director of Journalism Initiatives, says, “If a third of nation’s high school students thought the Pledge of Allegiance went too far, and refused to say it, what an uproar that would cause! The First Amendment is even more important. We hope educators are willing to take a serious look at what their students know about America’s most fundamental laws.”

The survey results come at a time when American teenagers are losing ground when compared with their peers in other industrialized nations. The U.S., which once led the world in high school graduation rates, has plummeted to 17th -- well behind France, Germany and Japan. Most educators agree that increased investment in teacher training is one of the keys to improved student performance.

According to Professor Brian J. Foley of the Florida Coastal School of Law “This reflects years of neglect. Many of ours schools have failed to teach students about our Constitution, about what it means to be citizens instead of spectators. Many schools have failed to teach thinking skills -- critical thinking, creative thinking, problem solving. When we start teaching those skills widely, the importance of First Amendment values such as getting the most ideas out on the table and subjecting them to searching inquiry and debate will become clear. When we don’t question our government and test what it says and the plans it proposes, the government -- and our country -- are likely to fail.  Call it patriotism, but it’s really just common sense.”

The survey results also come at a time when President Bush is seeking to encourage freedom around the world. In his recent inaugural address, he said, “Across the generations, we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government … it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”

Meanwhile, repressive governments -- including many that are close U.S. allies  -- are taking increasingly harsh actions against journalists and others who express opinions they find uncomfortable. Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based advocacy group that monitors press freedom world-wide, reports that thus far in 2005, one journalist has been killed, 172 journalists and media assistants imprisoned, and 70 “cyber-dissidents” jailed. 

For example, an Egyptian court has jailed the leader of an opposition party, detained a journalist, a lawyer, and a student on charges of “incitement against public order” as they distributed leaflets at the annual Cairo International Book Fair calling for a demonstration on against President Mubarak standing unopposed for a fifth term. In Morocco, several journalists were arrested and sentenced to prison under the anti-terrorism law. Three Jordanian journalists have been sentenced to jail terms over the publication of an article touching on the sex life of the Prophet Muhammad. In Iran, another prominent reformist journalist has been sentenced to a lengthy jail term on charges of spreading untruths and insulting the Islamic system. In Russia, President Vladimir Putin has effectively silenced independent media. And in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, thousands of Internet websites are blocked by the government, which also monitors local Internet activity.


Michael Ratner, President of the Center for Constitutional Rights, an advocacy group, declares, “Censorship is rampant in this country. The Bush administration opens its mouth to criticize what it does not like and our media, our universities run from robust debate and challenges to social mores like rats abandoning a sinking ship. I fear we are beginning to live in a homogenized society. We are living in a country where to offend anyone is a crime.  The crime is the end of the First Amendment.”

William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and Asia for the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. He served in the administration of President John F. Kennedy. He can be reached through his blog at:

Other Articles by William Fisher

* The Prince of Wonderland
* David and Goliath
* The Light is Going Out
* The Moral High Ground?
* Where Will It End?
* The Government We Deserve?