Survey: 29 percent believe students have too little freedom of expression in schools

TENNESSEE — The First Amendment may be making a comeback, but Americans are still concerned that schools are not doing enough to teach students about the rights it protects, according to a survey by the First Amendment Center in collaboration with the American Journalism Review.

Data released June 28 showed that support for the First Amendment had returned to pre-Sept. 11, 2001, levels. This year’s survey showed that 30 percent of respondents thought the First Amendment went too far in the rights it guarantees and 65 percent disagreed compared to a nearly even split in 2002.

Nearly half of the randomly selected respondents, who were interviewed via telephone by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut, were dissatisfied with the levels of freedom of expression for public high school students.

Knowledge of the rights the First Amendment protects, however, remains low. While 58 percent recognized that it protects freedom of speech, only 15 percent could recall freedom of the press and only 1 percent could name each of the five freedoms it safeguards: freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly and freedom to petition.

“The educational challenge is great,” said Paul K. McMasters, ombudsman for the Nashville-based First Amendment Center. “Just how great is reflected in how poorly Americans do when asked to name the five fundamental freedoms the First Amendment guarantees.”

Awareness that the education system could do more to teach about the First Amendment was reflected in the results.

More than two-thirds of respondents said the American educational system does a poor or fair job at teaching students about First Amendment freedoms.

This could be attributed to the dissatisfaction nearly half the respondents found in the levels of freedom of expression that public high school students were allowed. Fifteen percent said they had too much freedom, and 29 percent said they had too little freedom.

Seven in ten, however, said public school students should not be allowed to wear a T-shirt with a message or picture that others might find offensive.

The willingness to regulate expression was not limited to school settings.

Four in ten said newspapers should not be allowed to criticize the U.S. military about strategy and performance. Nearly half said the media had too much freedom. Four in ten said people should not be able to say things in public that offend religious groups. Six in ten said the same for racial groups.

“The surveys have shown a nation in a vigorous debate with itself over how much freedom we should have, what kind of restrictions should be permitted — and in recent years, whether our very freedom makes us more vulnerable to those who would attack us,” said Gene Policinski, acting director of the First Amendment Center.

View the results of the State of the First Amendment 2004 survey from the First Amendment Center.

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