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Teens: good news, bad news on First Amendment

By Gene Policinski
First Amendment Center executive director

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The First Amendment gets the classic “good news/bad news” treatment this week in reports of a followup study of teenagers conducted by the Knight Foundation.

The sampling of about 15,000 students and about 900 teachers across the nation finds:

  • The number of students who reported having taken a class that dealt with the First Amendment was up 14% over two years ago, from 58% to 72%. Good news.

  • The number of students who agreed with the statement that “the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees” also was up, by 10 points, from 35% to 45%. Bad news.

    But at the same time, students were slightly — sometimes only very slightly — more inclined to support freer speech for musicians, school newspapers and even the general press. More good news.

    Still, teens tend to know less than adults about the First Amendment, researcher Ken Dautrich told USA TODAY in talking about the Knight study he conducted. More bad news — though right in line with studies including the First Amendment Center’s own State of the First Amendment annual report on adults (which, I should note, has been conducted since 1997 by Dautrich and his research colleague, David Yalof).

    How “less” is “even less than adults”? Well, how low is the floor? Generally, only one in 100 adults — sometimes two of 100 — can name all five freedoms in the First Amendment.

    STOP READING HERE FOR A MOMENT: Can you name the five?

    Since you’re on a First Amendment Center Web page, I’ll assume I should say, “Congratulations, you beat ‘America’.”

    The five, as you already know, are, in order: Religion, speech, press, assembly and petition. (No, no, not “right to bear arms.” Grab a copy of the Bill of Rights and read on … that’s the Second Amendment!)

    So why don’t more adults and teens know and appreciate our five basic freedoms? The glib response is that we take our freedoms for granted, so we don’t pay attention to the list: a kind of “I may not know their names, but I know them when I see them” approach.

    That would be more good news, I think: We appreciate our freedoms — we just can’t recite them, even out of order.

    But here’s that bad-news aspect again. At least generations of Americans prior to now experienced some contact at a young age with those fundamental rights. From those alive today who can recall the echoes of the suffragist movement into the 1920s to those who lived through the civil rights battles of the '50s and '60s or Vietnam protests of the '60s and '70s, the power of free speech and free press, the role of all five freedoms, were a part of their life experience.

    What of teens today? Court decisions hem in student expression by handing administrators legal tools to shut down speech. Focus on measurable results in math, science and reading combines with budget crunches to kill off student newspapers. And textbooks often give short shrift to basics about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

    At least the study’s second part found young readers gravitating to Web news outlets – but perhaps at the expense of traditional news media, which now include television as well as newspapers and magazines.

    So why wonder why teens don’t appreciate and defend their First Amendment rights in greater numbers than adults?

    The bad news is they don’t. I suppose the good news from the latest reports is that a few more do.

    The Knight report, parts one and two, is available at

    Comment? E-mail me
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    Followup study finds more students learning about First Amendment, but more also think it goes too far. 09.18.06

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