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Young Americans' Views on Press Freedom Worry Journalists

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees citizens a right to free speech and free press. A recent national survey of American high school students suggests that many teens know little about those guarantees, take them for granted, or think they go too far.

The surprising results set off alarms in media offices across the nation. Supported by a $1 million grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation -- which gives financial support to high school journalism programs -- University of Connecticut researchers spent two years surveying more than 100,000 students, age 15 to 18.

The First Amendment states that "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press." Yet, more than one-third of young people said they believe the government should approve newspaper stories before they are published. 34% said the press has too much freedom.

Immediately after the results were announced, Channel One, a private television news and current-events service broadcast in many U.S. classrooms, reported similar reactions when it surveyed young people. " I believe in censorship," one young man said, "because people need limits." A young woman told Channel One, "Personally, I think that each group should have the right to express their ideas. But there are some circumstances where groups do go too far, just in the fact that I feel like they're not being patriotic to this country."

The Knight Foundation survey -- and Channel One's interviews -- also revealed considerable fuzziness about the First Amendment itself. Asked by a Channel One reporter what the First Amendement is, one girl replied, "I have no idea." A boy responded, "I don't know what the First Amendment is."

Andrew Muha, a 17-year-old junior at Lake Central High School in Saint John, Indiana, hopes to study architecture in college. He told VOA he knows "a little bit" about the First Amendment and "thinks its freedoms may go too far."

"It kinda means that we have the freedom to do what we want," he said. "I really don't think that should be right, because, if we say what we want, then we could give out false information, and we could ruin people's reputations, and it could incite riots and stuff like that."

Mr. Muha believes the government absolutely should have a say in what journalists write, especially on major stories that touch on national security.

Jack Dvorak, who teaches journalism at Indiana University and runs a summer program for high school students, says he sees a connection between the survey's results and increasing government involvement in schools since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

"It's not unheard of now to have all kinds of safety checks and scanning devices and security checkpoints and police and guards," he says. "In a very realistic and earnest approach to trying to keep students safe, I think that in many ways our schools have also become bastions of repressive-type activity with regard to how their students are treated."

Professor Dvorak says that once students grow used to government security checks in classrooms and hallways, it's easier to accept government intervention in school newspaper and yearbook offices. "That's the implicit message that's being given out in a lot of schools," he says.

Lake Central yearbook editor Ashley Cashen, 17, takes issue with that message. "The First Amendment is what America is all about," says Ms. Cashen. She has studied the First Amendment closely in journalism class and plans to continue her journalism education in college. "I don't think there's an age limit," she says. "They try to tell us at our school that we're not old enough to be making our own decisions in what we want to publish, when all that we publish is the truth."

But the First Amendment survey indicates that many high school students disagree with Ms. Cashen. "It's more than alarming that so many young people question free speech and support government control of the press, it's dangerous," says Hodding Carter III, president of the Knight Foundation, which sponsored the survey. "If you turn out cadres of citizens over a generation who have no respect or understanding for the basic documents of a free society," he says, "you are laying the groundwork for the erosion of freedoms that those documents guarantee. The older you get, the more likely it is you're going to forget at least some of those things that you were taught in school. What's highly disturbing is to find out the depth of what isn't, apparently, being taught in school."

The Knight Foundation also surveyed teachers and school administrators. Of the school principals interviewed, just 17% agreed that teaching journalism -- including in-depth study of First Amendment freedoms -- was a high priority.