Gender, geography affect views on expression

New reports suggest high school students have differing opinions on the First Amendment depending on their gender and where they live.

Urban students are more likely to favor greater means of expression ‘ such as airing an unpopular opinion or reciting profanity-laced lyrics ‘ while suburban students are more likely to believe the government should have the right to censor the press.

“The comparatively greater resources available to suburban students in the United States do not tend to translate into a greater appreciation and tolerance for the First Amendment by these students,” according to the study. “Indeed, in some cases urban and rural students tend to be much more enlightened on First Amendment issues than their suburban counterparts.”

Females are more interested in joining student media than males, but they are less supportive of press rights, including the right of the student media to publish freely, the study said.

A team of researchers at the University of Connecticut released the new findings in August and November, further distinguishing high school students’ appreciation for the First Amendment by geographic distribution and gender.

The new breakout reports are an extension of the Future of the First Amendment study released last winter, which found 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.

Researchers for the study, funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, questioned 112,000 students, more than 8,000 teachers and more than 500 principals and school administrators nationwide.

Warren Watson, director of J-Ideas, said he was surprised with the results on geographic distribution. J-Ideas is a project out of Ball State University that distributes the research results and works to develop and encourage excellence in high school journalism, according to its Web site.

“I figured schools with the least amount of journalism education would be less supportive, but it seems the opposite is true,” Watson said.

Conservative attitudes in the suburbs, political correctness and hesitancy towards risk-taking could provide reasons for these tendencies, he said.

Mary Arnold, head of the Journalism and Mass Communications department at South Dakota State University, said the finding that females are less supportive of press rights than males could reflect a cultural bias between males and females.

Males tend to make moralistic judgements, such as the difference between right and wrong, while females worry more about maintaining relationships, Arnold said.

“I don’t think young women are stupider or less well-read than young men,” she said.

David Yalof, a University of Connecticut professor and researcher on the study, said the overall results of the study were not surprising.

“We already had anecdotal evidence that students were not knowledgeable or appreciative of First Amendment rights,” Yalof said. “This study scientifically confirmed those findings.”

Students generally were not aware of the study’s findings, but did talk to the SPLC about their feelings on the First Amendment.

“People shouldn’t be able to go around saying things that are completely unnecessary, such as threatening people,” said Meghan Bradley, a sophomore at Norfolk County Agricultural High School in Norfolk, Mass. “But [the First Amendment is] an important freedom.”

Bradley’s older brother, Alex, a junior at Southeastern Regional Vocational Technical High School in South Easton, Mass., said he thinks protections do not go far enough.

“I think it’s good, but it is very controlled,” he said of the First Amendment. “There isn’t much more freedom of speech anymore. There are so many limits on it.”

The Knight Foundation, a non-profit organization established in 1950 to protect free press and promote excellence in journalism, spent $1 million over a two-year period to finance the study.

Eric Newton, director of journalism initiatives for the Knight Foundation, said the foundation’s commitment to maintaining high standards in journalism extends to student media.

“We thought it would be important for the general public to understand how important student media is within the larger context of First Amendment education and the teaching of civics in schools,” Newton said.

Emphasis on civics education, and particularly First Amendment issues, is necessary in order to foster citizenry, he said.

The results “confirmed that civics education in America’s high schools must be improved, that the First Amendment must be a focus of that improvement, and that high schools should be sure they include student media as part of that effort,” Newton said.

The Knight Foundation granted J-Ideas $850,000 for a program designed to deliver specially designed First Amendment programs to high schools, Watson said. The program could impact up to fifty schools over a two-year period.

Students are not taught enough about the basics of citizenry, Newton said.

“When schools teach, students learn. It’s that simple,” he said.

Researchers said they believe increased education about the First Amendment is essential to ensure its future.

“It’s too early to tell, but if we don’t build a greater appreciation for the First Amendment among high school students, the future of the First Amendment may be in danger,” Yalof said.