The Knight Foundation Study

A little while back, a friend called my attention to a study published under the auspices of the presumably liberal John S. and James L. Knight Foundation (though these days, how the hell can you tell?):

Future of the First Amendment: What America’s High School Students Think About Their Freedom

A “disturbing study,” an Annenberg Fellow writing in the Chicago Sun-Times found it (Feb. 4). “If an informed electorate is one of the keys to a healthy democracy, America’s schools are clearly failing their students and the nation.”

The survey “shows an extraordinary number of high school students consider their constitutional right to freedom of speech to be excessive,” the editorial voice of the Christian Science Monitor noted (Feb. 14). “And as if that response isn’t disturbing enough—some 75 percent of the students either took the First Amendment for granted or had no opinion about it at all. About half the students surveyed thought the US government could actually censor the Internet; two-thirds thought it was illegal to burn the US flag.”

The Cleveland Plain Dealer (Feb. 4) lamented the fact that “three-quarters of students think flag-burning is illegal; it is not. Half believe government can censor the Internet; it cannot. Only half believe newspapers should be able to publish without government approval of articles, which means that if the other half had its way, Watergate would be nothing more than the name of a building in Washington, D.C.”

“These results are not only disturbing,” Knight Foundation President Hodding Carter announced while releasing the study on January 31. “They are dangerous.”

The survey’s sample included 112,003 students from 544 of this country’s high schools, as well as 7,789 faculty members and 308 principals. (For a series of links to the results of this study, see Future of the First Amendment—Results.)

Now this is a very big survey, and I can’t possibly get into more than an tiny bit of its findings here. (For a series of links to news media accounts of the survey, also see below.)

Still. Perhaps my personal favorites can be found at Key Finding No. 2: “Students are less likely than adults to think that people should be allowed to express unpopular opinions or newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of stories.”

If you follow the weblink I’ve just provided, and scroll down the page, take a close look at the four sets of bar diagrams at the bottom (“Do you agree or disagree that…”).

It is by no means a complete wash for the high-school-aged students after all. Thus, in response to two of the four questions asked, America’s high school students indicated a greater commitment to the freedom of at least some forms of expression than found among the partisans of the adult world.

When asked, Should musicians be allowed to sing songs with lyrics others may find offensive?, 70 percent of students said “Yes,” while only 58 percent of faculty members, and 43 percent of principals agreed.

Similarly, when asked whether high school students should be allowed to report controversial issues in their student newspapers without the approval of school authorities, 58 percent of students, 39 percent of faculty members, and 25 percent of principals, said “Yes.”

Of course, the truly disappointing result here was that higher percentages across the board (i.e., students, faculty, principals—janitors, cafeteria operators, mascots, and the like) did not come out on the side of greater freedom of expression than the results indicate. If given the choice between two options—Would you prefer more freedom of expression, or less?—all other things being equal—I would think that people always ought to choose more freedom, rather than less. Leaving aside the question about student newspapers (i.e., the question is complicated by the kind of concessions one makes going into a project such as this), I for one can think of no good reason not to come down on the side of full and unabridged freedom of expression period. In fact, I find it awfully hard to imagine a scenario in which we’d be better off choosing less over more.

But this aside, what about the other two questions reported under Key Finding No. 2? Namely, (A) whether people should be allowed to express unpopular opinions? And (B) whether newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of stories?

On both of these questions, it was the students who guarded the rear, I’m afraid, behind their teachers, their principals, and the adult world in general.

Thus, in response to the statement, People should be allowed to express unpopular opinions, 99 percent of principals, 97 percent of faculty members, 95 percent of adults, and only 83 percent of students agreed.

Similarly, in response to the statement, Newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of stories, 80 percent of principals, 80 percent of faculty members, 70 percent of adults, and only 51 percent of students agreed.

You read that right, friends: A mere one-in-two American high school students agreed with the proposition that newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of stories—leading a writer for the Los Angeles Times to charge that “Americans have become constitutional dunces. Or neo-totalitarians. It’s hard to say which. Ignorance and oppression tend to go hand in hand.”

Now. I do not want to place the onus for this state of affairs on “teenage America.” As if such an age-cohort really does exist. Over and above the randomness of their date of birth. Over and above the synthetic concoctions of niche marketing. Over and above their having to spend the greater part of each year trapped within one of those godforsaken institutions where the researchers for the Knight Foundation conducted the survey.

But my sampling of the hysterical reactions to the Knight Foundation’s survey of the beliefs and attitudes of high school students—my own personal feeling might be expressed as “School is a twelve-year jail sentence where bad habits are the only curriculum truly learned” (here citing the American John Taylor Gatto)—Bad Habit No. One being fear, of course, and Bad Habit No. Two being submission, whether to authority or convention—leaves me at least as worried about the adult world.

Anyone who wants to read a bunch of blow-holes about how poorly informed younger Americans are, or, worse, how scary, should take a look at the “Future of the First Amendment—Quotes” webpage. I’ll guarantee you that there is not a single free-schooler among these stiffs. Not a single person who’s not beholden to the same educational establishment the lot of them are lamenting—when it produces the kind of results the Knight Foundation documented.

I mean, really. Can you imagine anyone but partisans of the educational establishment surprised to learn that the same young people they’ve instructed from their pre-school years onward to avoid thinking and expressing independent thoughts because independence will only get them smacked down and put in their proper places should learn precisely this lesson, and come out on the weak side of freedom—just like their instructors?

If ever a hackneyed expression were appropriate, it is here. You reap what you sow. The real surprise is that more of America’s young people haven’t embraced the worst that their country has to offer them. A lot of their elders sure have.

Future of the First Amendment: What America’s High SchoolStudents Think about Their Freedom (Homepage), The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
Survey Finds First Amendment Is Being Left Behind in U.S. High Schools” (Media Release), January 31, 2005
Executive Summary and Key Findings (weblinks to 12 sets of “Key Findings”) (For the PDF version of the same.)

First Amendment no big deal, students say,” Associated Press, January 31, 2005
U.S. students say press freedoms go too far,” Greg Toppo, USA Today, January 31, 2005
US Teens ‘Reject’ Key Freedoms,” BBC News World Edition, February 1, 2005
“Freedom may get an assist; Survey finds student debits on basic rights,” Jason Spencer, Houston Chronicle, February 1, 2005 [see below]
Iraq the Vote: A Lesson in Democracy for Us,” Tony Norman, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 1, 2005
“Worrying signs suggest First Amendment faces second-class status,” Marjie Lundstrom, Sacramento Bee, February 3, 2005 [See below]
How did half of high school students become comfortable with government censorship of media?” Thomas Lipscomb, Chicago Sun-Times, February 4, 2005
Out of touch with a key freedom,” Editorial, Cleveland Plain Dealer, February 4, 2005
The Constitution: We the People, Ignorant and Tuned Out,” Molly Selvin, Los Angeles Times, February 6, 2005
Ignorance of the First Amendment,” Gina Lubrano, San Diego Union-Tribune, February 7 2005
Generation Red, White And Gray: If the children are the future, we’re screwed,” Alexander Zaitchik, New York Press, February 8, 2005
Teaching Freedom,” Editorial, Omaha World-Herald, February 8, 2005
“Freedoms Misunderstood: Surveys show Americans of all ages fall short in appreciating their rights,” Editorial, Columbus Dispatch, February 11, 2005 [See below]
“Campus expression jeopardized by First Amendment ignorance,” Chris Collins, Seattle Times, February 11, 2005 [See below]
First Amendment: Need for teaching is clear,” Editorial, Star Tribune, February 13, 2005
“Learning Democracy’s Bedrock,” Editorial, Christian Science Monitor, February 14, 2005 [See below]
“Kids Need An Education In Civics,” Editorial, Tampa Tribune, February 14, 2005 [See below]
Assault on liberty assisted by apathy,” Sam Fulwood III, Cleveland Plain Dealer, February 15, 2005
New generation blase about old freedoms,” Susan Llewelyn Leach, Christian Science Monitor, February 16, 2005
The First Amendment not adequately taught,” Editorial, San Antonio Express-News, February 20, 2005

FYA (“For your archives”): Links to the mainstream media tend to be very problematic. What is a good-working link today might not be in seven days. Or 31. And so on. As you’ll see by a close look at my effort to provide links to all of the items immediately above, some are linked, and some are not—and some of the ones whose links work today are bound to stop working at some point in the future. So deciding what to link and what to paste (below) is always a tough question. Not sure of how to best resolve this dilemma. Except for the original sources of the material to keep them electronically archived on a free and permanent basis. Until such a day……..

The Houston Chronicle
February 01, 2005, Tuesday 3 STAR EDITION
SECTION: B; Pg. 1 Metfront
HEADLINE: Freedom may get an assist ;
Survey finds student debits on basic rights

Mayde Creek High School journalism teacher Shetye Cypher remembers a time not long ago when her student reporters went out of their way to challenge authority.

“In the past, I had students who would buck up against the principal for not letting something in the paper,” said Cypher, faculty sponsor of the Rampage student newspaper. “Now, I don’t have anyone like that at all.”

Judging from the results of a national survey of more than 100,000 high school students, journalism teachers around the country have fewer First Amendment crusaders. A third of those students told University of Connecticut researchers that Americans’ constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech has gone too far, according to a survey released Monday.

The two-year, $ 1 million study was commissioned by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which advocates for freedom of the press. The Miami-based foundation called on schools to emphasize First Amendment instruction and support journalism programs.

“These results are not only disturbing; they are dangerous,” foundation president Hodding Carter III said in a written statement. “Ignorance about the basics of this free society is a danger to our nation’s future.”

The survey found that three-quarters of students wrongly believe that flag burning is against the law and that more than half think newspapers should have to get government approval of their stories.

Cypher, a former Houston Post fashion writer, has been teaching journalism at the Katy Independent School District campus for six years. Students in her Journalism I class show little passion for free speech, she said.

“Even when we discuss Hazelwood, in years past students have had problems with it and not so much now,” Cypher said, referring to the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld a high school principal’s right to remove a story about teen pregnancy from a student newspaper.

Mayde Creek sophomore and Rampage writer Andrea Kveton said the survey results aren’t surprising, even though she disagrees with classmates who favor free-speech restrictions.

“My friends mostly are not conservative, but I know that on the whole, our school mostly is,” Kveton said. “I don’t think there should be any government regulations on most of the things we say.”

Educators are teaching students about the First Amendment, said 23-year Stratford High School journalism teacher Janice Cummons. But many students don’t realize its importance.

“In the past several years, there has not been debate about freedom of the press like there used to be. It’s been that way for the last 10 years,” said Cummons, who teaches in the Spring Branch ISD. “They are not aware of the fights that have been fought to get them where they are.”

The survey showed that nearly a quarter of American high schools don’t offer media programs to students during class time. Aldine ISD’s Carver High School went all of last year without a student newspaper because the faculty adviser left the school.

Two Carver seniors resurrected the paper – Channel Zero – in the fall with the help of librarian Suzanne Lyons, who meets with the newspaper staff after school.

“I think our students want to give a good spin on the school and what goes on in the school,” Lyons said. “But they don’t hesitate to point out things that are a little more controversial. They’re asking, ‘Why do we have a dress code? Why do we have to have a photo ID?’ “

Journalism teacher Cathy Bottoms worked 20 years at Northbrook High School before taking a job with Spring Branch Memorial High School last fall.

She believes today’s high school students are more likely to favor censorship because media content has become more risque.

“Things that we would have wanted to write about in high school, these guys do it and it’s no big deal,” she said.

Sacramento Bee
February 3, 2005, Thursday METRO FINAL EDITION
HEADLINE: Worrying signs suggest First Amendment faces second-class status
BYLINE: Marjie Lundstrom

The two events were unrelated, but the thread is clear: The First Amendment is in big trouble.

First came legal paperwork last week from the U.S. attorney’s office in Sacramento, still fighting the return of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski’s original writings so he may donate them to a library. I first wrote about this last March, when a federal judge agreed with the government that releasing the papers would allow the Unabomber to profit from their “celebrity value.”

Kaczynski, the serial bomber who killed three people and injured 23 others between 1978 and 1995, had intended his personal papers go to the Joseph Labadie Collection at the University of Michigan. The collection, named after Michigan labor union organizer Joseph Labadie, contains historic materials about radical, social and political movements – and is used by researchers and scholars around the world.

It’s not like Dominick Dunne or Kitty Kelley are clamoring for these papers.

But the matter is still percolating, as both sides debate how the First Amendment does or does not fit into the legal picture. The case is before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“All we really want is for these papers to go to a library,” said Kaczynski’s attorney, John Balazs. “We have no intention of making a spectacle out of it, or to sell them.”

Instead, he says, “all the original source documents are probably tucked away in some FBI storage facility.”

Now that’s useful. Why do something potentially instructive with the material when you can suppress it?

Which brings me to Event 2. And this is what makes the outlook for the First Amendment so dicey.

As it turns out, a lot of high school students in this country would apparently support the government’s super-daddy role, according to a new survey.

The national study, by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, found that nearly three-fourths of high school students didn’t know how they felt about the First Amendment, or admitted they take it for granted. The survey of 112,003 students, including a proportionate share of Californians, found that 36 percent believed newspapers should get “government approval” of stories before publishing.

Misconceptions abound: 75 percent incorrectly believe flag burning is illegal; half think the government can censor the Internet. The survey concludes that America’s high schools “are leaving the First Amendment behind.” Educators, they say, aren’t giving students an understanding or appreciation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech and a free press.

Education is key. Among those students who had taken courses dealing with the press or First Amendment, 87 percent said they felt people should be allowed to express unpopular opinions. Among those without such instruction, the number dropped to 68 percent.

In Kaczynski’s case, the government has contended the First Amendment doesn’t really apply, since officials have agreed to turn over copies of his papers.

“The allegation that the United States is seeking to suppress Kaczynski’s ideas is misguided,” the government stated. “There are no ideas in Kaczynski’s original writings that are not communicated by photocopies.”

Others disagree. Librarians and archivists maintain that originals are critical to historical and scholarly work.

“The public has a First Amendment right to receive the unique information transmitted solely by Kaczynski’s original documents,” the American Civil Liberties Union has argued, on behalf of librarians and archivists.” … The public’s right to study Kaczynski’s original papers is ill served by the government’s apparent attempt to keep those papers in mothballs for perpetuity.”

The bottom line is, it looks bad. From the outside, it looks suspiciously like the government trying to suppress the originals because they don’t like them.

Kaczynski, who blew up people to make intellectual points, is hardly a sympathetic figure. And therein lies the trouble for the First Amendment.

It is easy to support the daring journalist or individual, crusading against corrupt and powerful officials who would try to silence their voices. It’s much harder to apply the principles to the likes of Theodore Kaczynski.

But you certainly have to understand those principles, and value them.

If the survey is accurate, it’s haunting to think we must rely on our youth – and the quality of their schooling – to carry the torch of our most basic freedoms.

Columbus Dispatch (Ohio)
February 11, 2005 Friday, Home Final Edition
Surveys show Americans of all ages fall short in appreciating their rights

Many high-school students lack an appreciation for the rights granted by the First Amendment. The results of a study released last month reveal a gap in education about the importance of freedom of speech, religion and the press.

Of the findings:

* 73 percent of 112,000 students polled said they take the First Amendment for granted or that they don’t know what to think about it.

* 35 percent feel to some degree that the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees. Twenty-one percent said they are unsure.

* 83 percent agreed to some extent that people should be allowed to voice unpopular opinions.

* 75 percent incorrectly believe burning a flag is illegal.

* 36 percent feel to some degree that newspapers should seek government approval before publishing.

“Ignorance about the basics of this free society is a danger to our nation’s future,” said Hodding Carter III, president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which funded the survey.

But whether the results of a teen survey would have been different 100, 50 or 20 years ago is hard to say.

More troubling is that adults show poor understanding of the First Amendment.

In a similar 2004 survey of 1,000 people, age 18 and older, 65 percent said they think the amendment is fine as written, but only a few could identify its guarantees beyond freedom of speech.

About 60 percent said that the extent of their freedom of speech is just right, while 28 percent said Americans have too little freedom to speak.

But when faced with individual examples, many would permit only “acceptable” types of speech:

* 44 percent disagree that people should be allowed to say things in public that might offend a religious group.

* 63 percent disagree that people should be allowed to say things that might offend a racial group.

Apparently, the students in the Knight study are apples that didn’t fall far from the tree.

Warm-and-fuzzy sentiments don’t need protection. The First Amendment fulfills its purpose when it protects unpopular speech. It prevents others or the government from determining arbitrarily what is acceptable and what isn’t. Americans don’t know how good they’ve got it.

Look at Russia. Because capitalism and democracy came about too quickly and brought negative consequences, people have retreated, handing many of their rights to their leader in return for promises of protection. Freedom may not be safe, but it allows self-determination.

Appreciation for democracy starts with the young. Students need current, provocative examples in their social-studies classes that demonstrate the Bill of Rights’ importance beyond the 18th and 19th centuries.

They should hear about places where such freedoms are unheard-of. They ought to look through newspapers and news magazines and imagine what would be different or missing if America were Iran or China.

The Seattle Times
February 11, 2005 Friday
Fourth Edition
SECTION: ROP ZONE; Opinion; Pg. B7
HEADLINE: Campus expression jeopardized by First Amendment ignorance
BYLINE: Chris Collins, Special to The Seattle Times

Whitworth College, a liberal-arts school in Spokane, celebrated the 100th anniversary of its student newspaper this week. But I wonder if the paper will still be around in another century, or even another generation?

If the results of a recent survey that asked high-school students about their views on the First Amendment are any indication of America’s future, the fate of student newspapers across the country is depressing.

When asked whether they think the First Amendment “goes too far in the rights it guarantees,” 21 percent of the 100,000 students surveyed said they didn’t know enough about the First Amendment to even offer an opinion. Only a minority said they thought it didn’t go too far. A stunning 35 percent said the First Amendment pushes the boundaries.

Also, nearly half of the students said that newspapers should not be allowed to publish freely without government approval.

That’s disturbing.

Ask the imprisoned journalists in China or Russia. They have good reason to object to government censorship. That censorship keeps their countries from establishing a free society and their fellow citizens from holding their governments accountable.

If today’s high-school students shrug off the First Amendment as an old-fashioned ideal that belongs on the back burner of our fundamental rights, we’re in trouble.

It doesn’t necessarily matter how the courts decide First Amendment cases, what free-expression legislation Congress passes, or what executive orders are issued from the White House. If our budding members of society are intellectually stunted, press freedoms will naturally fall by the wayside.

How can a student who wants to see a “U.S. Office of Media Affairs” stamp on every newspaper article value a student newspaper that gives a local voice to collegians and high-school students? How can this student value the First Amendment? And if students don’t value the First Amendment, who will defend a free press?

That faded document preserved in the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C., won’t fight for itself.

Students who take more classes that discuss free expression or media issues are more likely to at least have an opinion on the First Amendment, the survey found. Also, they favor greater First Amendment protections much more than those who do not take such classes.

Without schools that emphasize the importance of free expression, students get an education in the three R’s, but don’t learn about the foundations of our country.

Unfortunately, the number of schools that have high-school newspapers is plummeting. Among lower-middle-income institutions, the figures are startling: 37 percent of these schools have dropped their student newspaper in the past five years, according to the survey sponsored by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The survey’s findings, released last month, represent more than an ignorance of the First Amendment. They reflect a general ignorance of America’s basic principles ? principles that have played a role in spurring democratic movements around the world.

Are students aware of what happens to societies without free media?

Would Ukraine have had its nonviolent democratic revolution if Ukrainians and the rest of the world did not see pictures of orange-clad voters vouching for freedom or read the inspiring words of its pro-democracy candidate Viktor Yushchenko?

Admittedly, there should be some reasonable restrictions on free media. Constitutional guarantees that ensure the security and welfare of the state must be considered. For example, Geraldo Rivera shouldn’t be allowed to go on live television and pinpoint where American troops are operating.

But security concerns should trump media rights only on rare occasions. The 1971 Pentagon Papers released to The New York Times detailed U.S. military actions in Vietnam only after they took place. That was information rightly shared with the public.

I could conclude with some profound comment from one of the Founding Fathers, but this short excerpt from the Bill of Rights is probably more important to read:

“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.”

Christian Science Monitor (Boston, MA)
February 14, 2005, Monday
HEADLINE: Learning Democracy’s Bedrock
BYLINE: The Monitor’s View

A recent survey shows an extraordinary number of high school students consider their constitutional right to freedom of speech to be excessive.

Some 100,000 students across the nation took part in the two-year, $ 1 million survey conducted by researchers from the University of Connecticut for the respected John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More than a third of the students felt the First Amendment of the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion, speech, the press, and the right of assembly went “too far.”

And as if that response isn’t disturbing enough – some 75 percent of the students either took the First Amendment for granted or had no opinion about it at all. About half the students surveyed thought the US government could actually censor the Internet; two-thirds thought it was illegal to burn the US flag.

The fact that just half the students in the study felt that newspapers should be allowed to publish stories without government approval is especially troubling.

Such errant responses signal, among other things, that more secondary-level schools should be teaching the fundamentals of a democratic society through better civics and government courses.

After all, the survey also brought out this salient point: that students who have a knowledge of the basic freedoms they possess as American citizens are much less likely to reject those freedoms.

Tampa Tribune (Florida)
February 14, 2005 Monday
HEADLINE: Kids Need An Education In Civics

It came as a shock recently to learn that many young people are not familiar with our basic constitutional rights.

A first-of-its-kind survey of some 112,000 high school students, 8,000 teachers and 500 principals and administrators showed students don’t think that First Amendment protections — freedom of speech and freedom of the press — are all that important.

Hodding Carter III, president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which commissioned the $1 million study, found the results disturbing and dangerous. “Ignorance about the basics of this free society is a danger to our nation’s future,” Carter said.

The fallout should be a charge to each of us to instill in our children an appreciation for our constitutional government.

Three of every four students admit they take the right to free speech and the press for granted. A huge majority — 75 percent — believe that burning the flag is illegal when flag burning is a protected form of speech. Half of the students surveyed believed the government can legally censor the Internet. And almost half do not believe newspapers should publish freely.

On the other hand, 60 percent of students think student newspapers should be allowed to write about controversial topics and 83 percent believe people should be allowed to express unpopular opinions. Clearly, the connection between these behaviors and the First Amendment is not understood.

It’s time to reexamine the civics education given students. And parents should talk to their children about the fundamental rights free people need to govern themselves.

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