VIRGINIA — A slightly increasing minority of Americans supportfree-press rights for high school students, according to a recent survey.
In The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center’s survey, “The State ofthe First Amendment 2000,” released in early July, respondents were askedwhether they believe high school students should be allowed to report oncontroversial issues without the approval of school authorities.
Forty-three percent strongly or mildly agreed that students should havethe right to cover hard-hitting stories. That number is up 6 percent fromlast year’s survey.
Paul McMasters, Freedom Forum ombudsman, said that although the numbersare up, it will take a few more years to determine how people really feelabout high school press rights.
“I’m not sure that isn’t explained by just an ordinary fluctuation thatyou would see over time,” McMasters said. “We’d have to have a couple moreyears to see if there is any trend there.”
McMasters said the main problem is many people do not think high schooljournalists are entitled to the same rights as their professional counterpartsmerely because they are students.
“I think also there are a lot of people that think, ‘Hey, this is aschool, it’s a learning environment and kids shouldn’t be able to do thesame things they would do in adult life in exercising their freedoms,'”McMasters said. “To me that is a hasty and thoughtless view. We exposethem to the same sort of physical dangers in football as their professionaland collegiate counterparts-yet at the same time we try to rationalizeor justify restrictions on high school press, especially by saying they’rejust kids and they don’t know how to use these dangerous tools of journalism.”
Unfortunately, McMasters said, there is no quick fix. He said peopledo not understand that students need a place to practice using their rightsbefore they enter the professional world.
“Well, the easy answer and the hard solution is education,” McMasterssaid. “People have to do a better job of understanding that if they wanta good, responsible, accurate press in real life, they ought to let themstart learning at the student level.”
Many high school administrators think the purpose of a student paperis to cover positive news, McMasters said.
“Then there’s the other aspect and that comes mainly from school officialsand school board members, and that is that the school press is to functionas a promotional or public relations tool of the school,” McMasters said.”So all of these things combine to give a rather crimped view of FirstAmendment rights of student journalists.”
Despite the increase in support for the student press, respect for theprofessional media is still low. According to the survey, only 38 percentof respondents strongly believed news organizations should be able to reportor publish what they think is appropriate.
Robert Corn-Revere, a First Amendment attorney, said that although theoverall numbers are a little disappointing, it is important to look atthe bigger picture.
“I think it is important to keep these findings in perspective,” Corn-Reveresaid. “This is not a national referendum, it is more like a national moodring. I think, ironically, 63 percent felt education on the First Amendmentwas at least fair. Yet 37 percent couldn’t name a single First Amendmentright.”
“The State of the First Amendment 2000” Survey is available on The FreedomForum’s Web site at: http://www.freedomforum.org/newsstand/reports/sofa4/printsofa4.asp.