Survey reveals dwindling support for student press

\nVIRGINIA – Americans’ support for student free press rights\nis waning, according to a recent survey.

The State of the First Amendment, a poll conducted by The Freedom\nForum First Amendment Center and the Center for Survey Research\nand Analysis at the University of Connecticut, reveals diminishing\nsupport for all of the First Amendment freedoms when compared\nto a 1997 survey, but most notably the freedom of the press.

More than half of the respondents said they believe the press\nhas too much freedom, and 60 percent said high school students\nshould not be free to print stories about controversial issues\nwithout school officials’ approval.

Paul McMasters, the First Amendment ombudsman at the Freedom\nForum, acknowledged that it is difficult to establish trends over\na two-year period, but attributed the decline in support for the\nFirst Amendment to Americans’ desire to have more calm and security\nin their lives.

“They think the best way to do this is by shutting other\npeople up,” he said.

McMasters said the best way to increase the public’s support\nfor the First Amendment is through education.

“The people in our poll tell us the educational system\nis doing a bad job of teaching them about their freedoms, particularly\nFirst Amendment freedoms,” McMasters said. “A good grounding\nin the Bill of Rights in our schools at all levels, coupled with\na continued campaign of civic education, will make people more\nappreciative and supportive of their First Amendment freedoms.”

“People who understand their First Amendment freedoms\ndevelop a tolerance for offensive speech and disagreeable speech\nthat strengthens democracy,” he added.

But McMasters conceded that the high school student press never\ndid have a lot of support.

In the 1997 survey, 24 percent of respondents strongly agreed\nwith the statement, “High school students should be allowed\nto report controversial issues in their student newspapers without\napproval of school authorities,” 21 percent mildly agreed\nwith the statement, 23 percent mildly disagreed with it and 29\npercent strongly disagreed with the statement.

In 1999, only 19 percent of the survey respondents strongly\nagreed that high school students should be allowed to report controversial\nissues in their school newspapers without approval of school authorities,\nonly 18 percent mildly agreed, 27 percent mildly disagreed and\n33 percent strongly disagreed. In both surveys, 3 percent of respondents\nsaid they did not know or refused to answer the question.

McMasters argued that the support of high school students’\nfree press rights is crucial to creating responsible student journalists.

“You’re not responsible unless you’re given rights, and\nwe make a serious mistake when we don’t support maximum student\nrights for journalists,” he said.

McMasters said that when school officials dictate to students\nwhat they can and cannot print in their newspapers, students do\nnot learn responsibility.

“They learn that might makes right,” he said. “Student\njournalists need to challenge efforts to restrict their speech\nin the name of other students.”

“In a public school environment, the same principles should\napply as in the larger life,” he added. “That is that\ncitizens can’t learn and the government can’t be watched unless\nthe press is free”

View the full results of the State of the First Amendment surveyat