- The Washington Times - Monday, January 31, 2005

American high school students lack knowledge and understanding of the First Amendment, a study released yesterday suggests.

More than a third of the nation’s high school students say the amendment — guaranteeing citizens the freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly and the right to petition the government — goes too far in the rights it guarantees.

Hodding Carter, president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which sponsored the survey, said “these results are not only disturbing, they are dangerous.”

“Ignorance about the basis of this free society is a danger to our nation’s future,” he added.

The survey of 112,003 students found that half said newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without governmental approval of stories. Thirty-two percent of the students interviewed said the press has too much freedom. Furthermore, 17 percent said people should not be allowed to express unpopular opinions.

Half of the students wrongly thought that the government can censor the Internet.

The survey also showed a wide indifference to basic freedoms, with nearly three-fourths of high school students either not knowing how they feel about the First Amendment or acknowledging that they take it for granted.

Mike Maidenberg, vice president of the foundation, did find a “hopeful message” in the survey: It suggests that First Amendment values can be taught. The more the students take classes with journalism and First Amendment content, the greater their understanding and embrace of the amendment’s rights.

The survey also questioned nearly 8,000 teachers and more than 500 administrators and principals in April and May last year.

An overwhelming majority of administrators said it is important for all students to learn some journalism skills, but cited a lack of financial resources as the main obstacle. Of the high schools that do not have student newspapers, 40 percent have eliminated them within the past five years.

“The last 15 years have not been a golden era for student media,” said Warren Watson, director of the J-Ideas Project at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., an organization aimed at developing high school journalism. “Programs are under siege or dying from neglect. Many students do not get the opportunity to practice our basic freedoms.”

Mr. Maidenberg called the survey a “wake-up call.”

“If there is not a future to the First Amendment, then this is a very different kind of country,” he said.

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