Study reveals “disturbing” results about high school students and the First Amendment

Twenty-five percent of high school student newspaper participants agree that students should not be allowed to publish controversial issues in a student newspaper without the consent of school authorities – just one of the sobering results in “The Future of the First Amendment” study released Jan. 31 about high school students and the First Amendment.

The study, the largest of its kind, conducted in the spring of 2004 by researchers at the University of Connecticut and sponsored by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, revealed that more than a third of all high school students surveyed believe the First Amendment “goes too far” in guaranteeing freedom of speech and freedom of the press. The study surveyed 112,000 students; 7,889 teachers; and 327 principals in 544 schools across the country.

“These results are not only disturbing, they are dangerous,” said Hodding Carter III, president of the Knight Foundation.


Student journalists are less likely than their peers to believe that the government should be able to prevent mainstream newspapers from covering controversial topics, the study found. However, only 50 percent of students who do not participate in student media activities believe professional journalists should be able to report controversial topics without government approval. More than 30 percent of students believe the press in America has too much freedom.

The study also found that participation in student media activities is dwindling, mainly because schools are dropping journalism courses and activities. The report indicated that more than one in four high schools has no student newspaper and more than one in five schools offer no student media programs. The study also suggested that 40 percent of the schools without student newspapers eliminated the program within the past five years.

Despite the disheartening results in the survey, the report is a “wake-up call” and an opportunity to encourage student media and support of First Amendment rights, said the researchers and others connected with the study. The report kicked off a two-day summit of First Amendment advocates and journalism educators to discuss ways to improve the teaching of the First Amendment in schools and develop an action plan for educators.

SPLC View: In 1988, in his forceful dissent to the Supreme Court’s Hazelwood decision significantly limiting the First Amendment protections for most school-sponsored student expression, Justice William Brennan warned that public education had a duty to “inculcate in tomorrow’s leaders the ‘fundamental values necessary to the maintenance of a democratic political system….'” By any measure, this study makes clear that such civics education is, in most schools, a dismal failure. An understanding and appreciation for free speech and a free press is not something that results from the flipping of a switch when a student turns 18 years old and assumes his role as a fully participating citizen. It must be taught and it must be nurtured. The censorship battles that prompt students to ask the Student Press Law Center for help reinforces our belief that such “teaching” is the last thing on many school officials’ minds.


Fortunately, this study seems to have sparked an awareness of the fragility of our rights – perhaps even a fear – that has not previously existed: the freedoms we enjoy today are not a given tomorrow. And student journalism is one of the best means for teaching students the true meaning of the First Amendment. If, as Justice Brennan noted, we want tomorrow’s leaders to understand the “fundamental values” necessary for a democracy to flourish, we must start teaching those values – in theory and in practice – today. In furtherance of the SPLC’s commitment to that effort, we will be making a major announcement in March.