Several of the liberal blogs I read are in a lather about a recent poll showing that high school students don't really grasp the import of the First Amendment. In this, they are following the lead of the Knight Foundation, which conducted the survey as a part of $1 million research project, and issued the results under the scare headline Survey Finds First Amendment Is Being Left Behind in U.S. High Schools.
And, yes, the statistics are not so good.
- 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.
- Seventy-five percent erroneously think flag burning is illegal.
- Half believe the government can censor the Internet.
- More than a third think the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees.
Both the foundation and the blogs I read conclude that this indicts high school civics education. And since I think high school civics classes tend to be awful, I can see why this is easy to believe.
Trouble is, these views of the First Amendment are not so different from what their parents say when surveyed. So it's just as likely that the kids get this stuff at home.
Consider this analysis of the First Amendment Center's eighth annual survey of adults' views of the First Amendment,
One theme persists over the eight years that the First Amendment Center has conducted the State of the First Amendment survey: In the minds of many Americans, there is a troubling disconnect between principle and practice when it comes to First Amendment rights and values.
Americans in significant numbers appear willing to regulate the speech of those they don’t like, don’t agree with or find offensive. Many would too casually breach the wall between church and state. There is, in these surveys, solid evidence of confusion about, if not outright hostility toward, core First Amendment rights and values.
If more than a third of teen respondents think the government should censor more, they are not that different from their parents, as the First Amendment survey reports that four in ten adults “believe the press has too much freedom.”
It's old news that many Americans don't have a knee-jerk reaction in favor of free speech. That is why the First Amendment is so important. Not only does it protect me against the censors, but it serves an educational and indeed an exaltative role. Fewer people tend to support “weakening the First Amendment” than agree people should not have the right to speak freely. And so it has been for a long time.
The exaltive role of the First Amendment, all amendments really, deserves to be underlined. The amendments do not just provide power to the courts to uphold our rights, but also reaffirm certain basic principles that are good in general. They are supposed to guide our legislators and government officials in general as well as the people at large. In fact, this might be considered their potentially most important aspect.
I’d add that even though the federal courts did not “incorporate” the Second Amendment, nor uphold its broad potential as an individual right, its “exaltive” message is in large part behind wide support of the right to bear arms, including in preventing much federal legislation that would limit it (for better or for worse). For liberals, the Ninth Amendment’s overall principle of unenumerated rights also has a similiar value. The people and government at large accept and promote the principle that privacy and other such concerns are important.
One finding, reported in my local newspaper, did emerge that I thought was interesting (besides the tepid support of students for free speech).
When asked whether stories in school newspapers should be approved by school officials, students were much more likely to oppose that than government approval of mainstream news. It’s clear to me–students tend to believe in free speech when it comes to themselves and their interests, but are less inclined to support it among others. The message we somehow aren’t communicating is that restricting free speech for some means that our own speech is subject to control as well.
Shorter youth of America: “I’ll gladly sacrifice stories critical of the ruling elite so long as Eminem can rap about his murder fantasies.”
More Third Amendment blogging! Quarter those troops in my condo, will you?