High School Students Apathetic, Unknowledgeable About First Amendment

Published April 1, 2005

Most high school students in the United States do not understand or are apathetic toward the First Amendment, according to a survey released in January by the University of Connecticut. The survey suggests media studies classes and student journalism give students a greater appreciation and understanding of First Amendment rights than they would have without that background.

For the project, “The Future of the First Amendment,” commissioned by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, more than 100,000 students, almost 8,000 teachers, and more than 500 administrators and principals at public and private high schools were surveyed.

“These results are not only disturbing; they are dangerous,” said Knight Foundation President and CEO Hodding Carter III in the Knight news release. “Ignorance about the basics of this free society is a danger to our nation’s future.”

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects the freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and the right to petition the government for redress of grievances.

Civics Education Missing

Findings of the survey indicate that a majority of students are apathetic and uninformed about First Amendment protections. For example:

  • Nearly 75 percent of students surveyed either do not know how they feel about the First Amendment or admit they take it for granted;
  • 75 percent falsely believe it is illegal to burn the U.S. flag as a form of public statement; and,
  • 50 percent think the government can censor the Internet.

“Schools are not teaching the principles of the First Amendment broadly enough,” Richard Lee Colvin, director of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media at Columbia University, said in the report. “That’s in part because civics education has all but disappeared.”

The survey does not offer any direct commentary on traditional civics courses. It does suggest, however, that increased exposure to the First Amendment through news media in the classroom and through student journalism increases student appreciation of the First Amendment.

For example, among students who have completed courses in media or the First Amendment, 87 percent believe people should be permitted to voice dissenting opinions; the number drops to 68 percent among those who have not taken such courses.

A primary researcher for the study, Dr. Kenneth Dautrich of the University of Connecticut, acknowledged, “there are a variety of sources from which students might get knowledge of or form opinions about the First Amendment. The survey asked about their parents’ behavior, the extracurricular activities–like student newspapers–that they are involved in, etc. For each student we also have attitudes of the principal and the school environment–for example, is there a school paper, tv station, radio, etc.”

Media, Journalism Programs Waning

The report also reveals that media programs and journalism opportunities are waning in many high schools, and less than 20 percent of administrators surveyed consider journalism a high priority.

“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. “Programs are under siege or dying from neglect. Many students do not get the opportunity to practice our basic freedoms.”

According to the survey, of the high schools that do not currently offer student newspapers, 40 percent had eliminated those papers in the past five years. Schools in lower-income areas had a more sizeable decrease in student newspapers, 21 percentage points greater than in upper-income schools.

Administrators Blame Costs

Administrators cite financial constraints as the main obstacle to the expansion of student media options.

With public attention often fixed on No Child Left Behind, high-stakes testing, and myriad other educational measures, the authors of the report believe the survey is a call to action.

“Civic education is crucial to developing well-informed and responsible citizens,” said Dautrich, who conducted the research with University of Connecticut colleague Dr. David Yalof, of the school’s public policy department.

“By surveying students across the country as to their awareness and appreciation of First Amendment rights, Knight Foundation has provided a timely window into this important and often overlooked aspect of the educational process.”

Government, History Courses Needed

Victoria Hughes, president and founder of the Bill of Rights Institute, agreed.

“Knight Foundation has provided a great service with this comprehensive survey that spotlights the lack of civic knowledge among our high school students,” she said.

Hughes is optimistic because she believes there is general agreement among teachers and administrators in many states with regard to civics standards and the value of teaching the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. However, she notes two possible barriers to achievement.

“First, teachers do not always possess the knowledge necessary to teach, in a meaningful way, the First Amendment. Some are not comfortable going into great depth,” Hughes laments. “Secondly, textbooks do not approach the Constitution with any sustained in-depth treatment. These issues are difficult, and teachers and students need appropriate resources.”

Hughes also warns that although media studies and student journalism are educationally beneficial for some students, journalism is not the answer for all.

“Students should be learning about the First Amendment and civics through the core curriculum–that is, in required American government or American history courses,” she said. “We have to get down to business and educate our students to be active, informed citizens.”

Kate McGreevy ([email protected]) is a freelance education writer from Indiana. She formerly worked with the Cesar Chavez Public Charter High School for Public Policy in Washington, DC.

For more information …

The full “Future of the First Amendment” report is available online at http://firstamendment.jideas.org/findings/findings.php.

More information is also available on the Web sites of the Knight Foundation, http://www.knightfdn.org, and Bill of Rights Institute, www.billofrightsinstitute.org.