Know-nothing party: First Amendment a mystery to students

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

 This is our First Amendment. When you hear these words, what thoughts of your freedoms do they evoke? For an alarming number of high school students– according to a "Future of the First Amendment" poll by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation– the answer is "not that much."

The goal of this $1 million study was to discover students', teachers', and administrators' understanding of and feelings about the First Amendment, and to determine if there are any links between those beliefs and media programs and teachers' viewpoints students are exposed to.

During the course of its research, the Knight Foundation surveyed 100,000 students, 8,000 teachers, and 500 administrators at 544 public and private schools across the nation. The most startling discovery? The opinions of the students– or, one should say, the lack thereof.

Nearly three-fourths of the students questioned say they either have no opinion about the First Amendment or they take it for granted. More than a third of the students also believe the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it secures for American citizens.

Teachers and administrators, however, are much more likely to personally think about their rights. While only about half of the students questioned believe that newspapers should be given free exercise of the press without government interference, 80 percent of the adults support an unfettered press.

However, when the subject matter is more personal, the students are more apt to support First Amendment rights, with 70 percent agreeing that musicians should be able to express themselves– even if their lyrics may offend others.

Sadly, only 58 percent of the students believe they have a right to report controversial issues in school newspapers, although this is a higher percentage than support freedom of the national press. It appears that today's students are not as committed to freedom of the press as were previous generations.

The survey also uncovered just how ignorant students are about the First Amendment's protected rights. When asked if flag burning is illegal, 75 percent erroneously said it is. The Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that flag burning is protected as an expression of free speech. Students were also asked if the government can legally restrict posting of explicit material on the Internet. The response to this question was divided, with 49 percent incorrectly saying the government has the right to impose this form of censorship.

If students are not educated regarding their rights, we cannot expect them to have a serious commitment to the freedoms our country is supposed to profess. America's educational system has failed to provide our young people with adequate knowledge about our country's core values embodied in the First Amendment.

Education is the best way to inform the younger generation about the values of their First Amendment rights. The survey shows that those students who have participated in classes where the First Amendment is emphasized are more likely to support basic First Amendment rights. Also, students who work on a school newspaper are almost 10 percent more likely to support freedom of the press. This shows that First Amendment rights truly can be taught.

Despite the fact that First Amendment rights can be taught, it's clear from the survey that public educators have failed to do so. For example, although most educators who were surveyed affirm that journalism is a priority, more than 80 percent say that teaching it is not a top priority. Thus, students' ignorance about the First Amendment is likely to continue.

However, there's another way that public educators are not teaching First Amendment values, and that is by example. This primarily has to do with the draconian application of zero tolerance policies under which students are often arrested and charged with crimes for things that at one time were considered child's play.

For example, in Ocala, Florida, two boys (ages 9 and 10) drew stick figure drawings that were considered by school authorities to be violent. They were arrested, handcuffed, and charged with a felony. Such extreme behavior on the part of authorities indicates that mistakes by children are punished severely and that their basic rights are not respected.

Clearly, the results of this survey have serious implications. It is these students who will become our next generation of voters and political leaders. By failing to educate them, teachers have done a disservice not only to us, but to our nation as well.

Without proper education, how can we expect them to protect the First Amendment? Indeed, an old maxim says that what children learn in the classroom today becomes the philosophy of the next generation. If this is true, our Constitution may become a hollow, meaningless document.

It is also these students who may be going off to fight and risk their lives in far-off places like Iraq. It is horrible to think that they may do so in defense of rights they do not fully understand. In an editorial, John Seigenthaler, founder of the First Amendment Center, states, "Our Constitutional liberties are worth fighting for and, when necessary, dying for. And for those young Americans who may find themselves on the front lines, they are worth learning about."

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute and author of the award-winning Grasping for the Wind.