Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Whoa, it's like, just shut up, you know?

A lot of people are rending their garments over a new study released last week showing that high-school students think the First Amendment is, like, really overrated.

I first heard about it in the lunch room at work, where a very nice lady from another department thought that I, being in the news business, would be shocked and horrified. My first question was, are these the same students who don't know what century the Civil War was fought? Oh, wait, those were college students.

My second question was what were the questions. If you're as curious as I was, here's the survey.

A few of the questions were pertinent to the students' views and attitudes:
40. The First Amendment became part of the U.S. Constitution more than 200 years ago. This is what it says:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
Based on your own feelings about the First Amendment, please tell me whether you agree or disagree with the following statement: The First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees.
12% Strongly agree
23 Mildly agree
19 Mildly disagree
25 Strongly disagree
21 Don’t know
(Don't get me started on the phrase "Based on your feelings about the First Amendment . . . .") A quick pass with my trusty calculator tells me that 35% agree with that statement, and 44% disagree; 21% "don't know," and they're probably at least being honest (or they didn't want to take the survey).

Now let's look at that question from another direction: 35% agree that it "goes too far . . . ." Of the other 65% are a certain number, uncounted, who think it goes not far enough and some who think it's OK the way it is. It's a loaded question, loaded for the press release.

But what's the "right" answer ("based on your feelings")? Of the high-school principals, 24% thinks it goes too far, and 29% of high-school faculty agreed. They're not substantially below the students, and that glass is either a quarter full or three-quarters empty.
41. Overall, do you think the press in America has too much freedom to do what it wants, too little freedom to do what it wants, or is the amount of freedom the press has about right?
32% Too much freedom
10 Too little freedom
37 About right
21 Don’t know
This question is so vague that I'd have to go with the 21% who didn't know (I wonder if it's the same 21% from the prior question). "Too much freedom to do what it wants": and what, pray tell, does "it" want? "The press" is hardly a monolithic enterprise. It includes Dan Rather and the Wall Street Journal; the National Enquirer and the blogosphere; the paparazzi and Simon and Schuster. Should the press have the freedom to invade the privacy of a private citizen? Commit libel? Change the outcome of an election by promulgating forged documents? Certainly, there are elements of "the press" that "want" to do these things. Ought they be covered in the First Amendment?
For each of the following statements, please circle if you agree or disagree that someone should be allowed to do it...

42. People should be allowed to express unpopular opinions.
51% Strongly agree
32 Mildly agree
5 Mildly disagree
2 Strongly disagree
10 Don’t know
There's what the First Amendment guarantees, and 83% agree, and the "don't know's" have dropped to 10%. Somebody tell the political correctness police.
43. People should be allowed to burn or deface the American flag as a political statement.
8% Strongly agree
8 Mildly agree
11 Mildly disagree
63 Strongly disagree
10 Don’t know
We have 74% of these students saying that burning or defacing the flag is not OK. You can certainly carry on a lot of First Amendment-guaranteed speech without setting fire to the symbol of the guarantor of that freedom, and there has been much discussion about the issue over the past couple of decades. Even though there's a strong majority here, and even though I think Elvis has already left the building, I don't see this attitude as evidence of the rise of the Third Reich.
44. Musicians should be allowed to sing songs with lyrics that others might find offensive.
40% Strongly agree
30 Mildly agree
14 Mildly disagree
7 Strongly disagree
9 Don’t know
Looks like we're back to a strong majority -- 70% -- supporting free expression. The principals don't quite agree with their charges on this question -- with 43% in favor and 56% against. Faculty fall between them -- at 58% for and 41% against.
45. Newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of a story.
24% Strongly agree
27 Mildly agree
22 Mildly disagree
14 Strongly disagree
13 Don’t know
Again, it's an ambiguous question, but a plurality came down on the pro-press side. Still, if the kids are thinking about wartime, that might be an explanation for the close count. Would Ernie Pyle have revealed secret U.S. operations during WWII? Is that prior restraint or self-censorship?

Predictably, 80% of faculty and principals agreed that newspapers should be free of government censorship.
46. High school students should be allowed to report controversial issues in their student newspapers without the approval of school authorities.
30% Strongly agree
28 Mildly agree
18 Mildly disagree
11 Strongly disagree
13 Don’t know
Here 58% think they should, doubling the "disagree's" and tripling the "don't know's." The faculty are a tighter split, at 60% opposing administration censorship and 39% in favor of it (fewer of the faculty didn't know).

But the principals (the ones who get the calls from school boards, attorneys and parents) came down firmly on the side of prior restraint, with 78% of principals favoring censorship.

There's your survey in a nutshell: people of all ages are guided more by their own interests than by exalted principles (or principals either).

For my part, I still don't think the question is specific enough. Should student newspapers have the right to print controversial stories guaranteed by the First Amendment? Yes. Should they have the right to publish insufficiently researched or unnecessarily inflammatory pieces or libel? No. Does the question make any sort of distinction between journalism and using the press as a club to beat up your enemies? No.

After that the questions go into matters of opinion about other people's attitudes or facts of law, which vary from state to state and from year to year, and about their own connections with the journalism profession. These are high-school kids, and frankly, I can hardly keep up with the legal status of flag-burning and Internet pornography laws.

So, no, I don't think the sky is falling. They're teen-agers. If you teach them something, they'll learn it.

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