As colleges across the country debate the First Amendment, a recent survey suggests high school students are ignorant about their constitutional rights.
The University of Connecticut study, published by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in January, found nearly three-fourths of the 112,000 students surveyed said they don’t know how they feel about the First Amendment or take it for granted.
The $1 million survey also found 32 percent of students think the amendment goes “too far in the rights it guarantees,” while half think the government should be able to control what the news media report.
University of Minnesota journalism professor Jane Kirtley, a First Amendment expert, said the study might have profound, long-term implications.
“The First Amendment is not self-executing,” she said. “It has to be interpreted by the courts, and it has to be upheld by legislation – and the public needs to support it.”
Though youth ambivalence toward the amendment isn’t new, after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, young people seem more willing than ever to accept a restrictive government, said Kirtley, who travels around the world to speak about First Amendment issues.
“I do have to wonder whether, in the long run, we’re looking at a generation that believes the government is always right and the press is always wrong,” she said.
But David Bryden, University of Minnesota law professor emeritus, said the general public has always been “abysmally” apathetic toward the First Amendment.
“However, this is not as alarming as it sounds, because elites control the institutions that determine whether we have civil liberties,” he said.
Bryden said constitutional protections will remain strong as long as elites support them.
“We are arguing about the difference between extreme protection and extreme ‘plus’ protection of freedom of speech,” he said.
University of Minnesota political science professor Bill Flanigan, a public-opinion expert, said the survey results shouldn’t be taken too seriously.
“It’s pretty likely young people haven’t given much thought to this,” he said.
A deeper look at the survey reveals encouraging results, Flanigan said. He said that on questions regarding music and student newspapers, youth strongly opposed censorship.
“When you ask people about freedom on something they know about, they are more open to freedom,” Flanigan said.
Ignorance is more related to education level than age, he said.
Kirtley said many high schools fail to provide a proper education in civics.
“At the university level, there’s clearly some obligation to try to educate young people on these points,” she said.
Journalism junior William Grose said he’s not surprised at high school students’ naivete toward the amendment. As students age, their views will change, he said.
“That’s why high schoolers don’t run the country Ö or the media, for that matter,” he said.
But high school students who think the First Amendment doesn’t apply to them could be in for a surprise when they get to college, especially those who don’t want military recruiters on their campus.
A law that allows the government to withhold funding from colleges that ban military recruiters has come under fire recently from some who say it’s unconstitutional.
Yale Law School filed a lawsuit against the Department of Defense when the government threatened to withhold funds from the school if it did not give complete access to military recruiters on its campus.
Yale Law School argued that the law, known as the Solomon Amendment, violated its First Amendment right to free speech because the military’s refusal to allow openly gay people in its ranks went against the school’s nondiscrimination policies.
In February, a U.S. District Court judge ruled in favor of the school and decided the Solomon Amendment breached its right to free speech.
In a separate ruling made in November, a federal appeals court also gave law schools the right to ban military recruiters on campus. But the court is now delaying enforcement of its ruling while it waits to see if the Supreme Court will hear the case.
If the Supreme Court upholds the ruling, law schools all over the country will be able to ban on-campus military recruiting.
A congressman from Minnesota is leading the effort to keep the Solomon Amendment in place.
“This decision threatens to severely damage the ability of the military to recruit the highly qualified candidates necessary during a time of war,” Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., said during a House floor debate Feb. 2.
For the military to most-effectively serve the United States, it needs the most-qualified and well-trained citizens, he said.
“By denying recruiters the chance to offer these young men and women the opportunity to serve, these colleges and universities are doing a disservice to the safety and security of the United States,” Kline said in a statement on his Web site.