NEW YORK - While authoritarian states in much of the world routinely jail journalists and others for expressing critical opinions, a high percentage of U.S. high school students believe the government should censor the press and that constitutional protection of free speech goes ”too far”.
These are among the findings of a two-year, one-million-dollar study of 100,000 high school students, nearly 8,000 teachers, and more than 500 administrators and principals, carried out in more than 500 high schools by researchers at the University of Connecticut.
Entitled ”The Future of the First Amendment,” the poll was commissioned by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
”These results are not only disturbing, they are dangerous,” said Hodding Carter III, president of the Knight Foundation. ”Ignorance about the basics of this free society is a danger to our nation's future.”
Dr. David Yalof and Dr. Kenneth Dautrich of the University of Connecticut conducted the research for the foundation, which promotes excellence in journalism.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1787, is part of the Bill of Rights, which many of the authors insisted on as a condition for adoption.
It guarantees freedom of speech, the press, religion, assembly, and the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances. Most constitutional scholars believe all other American freedoms flow from this part of the Constitution.
The survey found that nearly three-fourths of high school students either do not know how they feel about the First Amendment or admit they take it for granted; three-fourths wrongly believe flag burning is illegal; and half believe the government can censor the Internet.
Only about half of the students questioned said that newspapers should be given free exercise of the press without government interference.
The university's Center for Survey and Analysis, which carried out the research, found that while 74 percent strongly agreed that U.S. citizens should be allowed to express unpopular opinions, only 26 percent approved of the right to express views in public that might be offensive to religious groups, while 36 strongly disagreed.
Eighteen percent strongly agreed that it is acceptable to say in public what might be offensive to racial groups, while 46 percent strongly disagreed.
”This reflects years of neglect,” said Brian J. Foley, a professor at the Florida Coastal School of Law. ”Many of ours schools have failed to teach students about our constitution, about what it means to be citizens instead of spectators.”
”When we don't question our government and test what it says and the plans it proposes, the government -- and our country -- are likely to fail.”
The researchers suggest that First Amendment rights would be universally known if they were classroom staples. The more students are exposed to the First Amendment and use the news media in the classroom, and the more involved they are in student journalism, the greater their appreciation of First Amendment rights.
When students take courses dealing with the media or the First Amendment, 87 percent believe in the right to express unpopular opinions, the survey found.
The study found that a quarter of U.S. schools offer no media programs to students. Nearly all school principals surveyed agreed students should learn about journalism, but said financial constraints block the expansion of such programs
”If a third of nation's high school students thought the pledge of allegiance (to the American flag) went too far, and refused to say it, what an uproar that would cause,” said Eric Newton, director of Journalism Initiatives at the University of Connecticut.
”The First Amendment is even more important,” he told IPS. ”We hope educators are willing to take a serious look at what their students know about America's most fundamental laws.”
The survey results come as U.S. teenagers are losing ground compared to their peers in other industrialized nations. The United States, which once led the world in high school graduation rates, has plummeted to 17th -- well behind France, Germany and Japan.
They also coincide with repeated pledges by President George W. Bush to encourage freedom around the world.
”Across the generations, we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government,” Bush said in his recent inaugural address. ”It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”
Meanwhile, repressive governments -- including many that are close U.S. allies -- are taking increasingly harsh actions against journalists and others who express opinions they find uncomfortable.
Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based advocacy group that monitors press freedom worldwide, reports that so far this year, one journalist has been killed, 172 journalists and media assistants imprisoned, and 70 ”cyber-dissidents” jailed.
An Egyptian court has jailed the leader of an opposition party, detained a journalist, a lawyer, and a student on charges of ”incitement against public order” as they distributed leaflets at the annual Cairo International Book Fair calling for a demonstration on against Pres. Hosni Mubarak standing unopposed for a fifth term.
In Morocco, several journalists were arrested and sentenced to prison under the country's anti-terrorism law. Three Jordanian journalists have been handed jail terms over the publication of an article touching on the sex life of the Prophet Muhammad. In Iran, a prominent reformist journalist has been sentenced to a lengthy jail term on charges of spreading untruths and insulting the Islamic system.
In Russia, President Vladimir Putin has effectively silenced the independent media. And in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, thousands of Internet websites are blocked by the government, which also monitors local Internet activity.
While these countries are often held up as extreme cases, some civil liberties activists argue that a more subtle form of censorship is also pervasive in the United States.
”The Bush administration opens its mouth to criticize what it does not like, and our media, our universities run from robust debate and challenges to social mores like rats abandoning a sinking ship,” Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights told IPS.
”We are living in a country where to offend anyone is a crime. (But) the crime is the end of the First Amendment.”
Copyright © 2005 IPS-Inter Press Service