ARLINGTON, Va. — 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 a recently released study about high school students and the First Amendment.
The study, 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 rapidly 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.
“Support for the teaching of student media and First Amendment has to come from the top down, from the superintendent of schools to the principal to the adviser to the student,” said Richard Holden, executive director of the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund, in the study.
More than half of the principals and administrators indicated in the survey that teaching media and journalism in their school is a priority, “but not a high priority.” Less than 20 percent ranked it as a high priority. The major obstacle to teaching journalism and establishing student media activities in schools is a lack of finances, the administrators indicated.
Ken Dautrich, one of the principal investigators of the study, said a large majority of educators indicated they would like to see their school expand existing media opportunities for students. However, he said, a lack of resources and student apathy stand in the way.
But apathetic students are not the only ones to blame, said Katy Dean, who last year successfully sued the administrators who censored her article in her high school’s student newspaper. Dean spoke at a news conference in Arlington, Va., where the study’s findings were introduced.
“I see the same apathy among administrators and educators,” said Dean, who graduated from Utica High School in Michigan in 2002. “The deeper issue is that administrators and educators fail to recognize the importance of socializing students on First Amendment rights.”
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.
Warren Watson, the director of J-Ideas, which develops journalism programs for high schools, referred to President Bush’s Inauguration Day address, in which Bush promised to spread democracy throughout the world, as he urged educators to “pay attention” to the results of the study.
“It’s a genuine problem to have a situation in this country where the First Amendment is not acted on as it should be at the same time as we are exporting democracy,” Watson said.
–By Diane Krauthamer, Britt Hulit and Campbell Roth