Do they know it’s freedom?

I’m frankly disturbed by the latest survey reports regarding teenagers’ take on the First Amendment. This USA Today article details the results of the U. Conn. survey. Key highlights include one-third of the 112,003 saying the government should approve newspaper stories before the public sees them. Thankfully a majority of students say the press shouldn’t be subjected to government censorship.

What are they teaching these kids in school? The teachers and principals in the USA Today story say that they’re teaching kids about the First Amendment, but is the message getting across? What’s the message?

I think part of the problem might lie in that the First Amendment isn’t seen as relevant to today’s youth. It’s sad on many levels because the need for freedom of speech and expression has never been more important. Perhaps the best way to help demonstrate the relevance of the First Amendment is to include discussions of how it’s in their daily lives. Some ideas — Howard Stern getting fined by the FCC and his move to satellite radio, students’ blogs being censored by schools, students wearing Pepsi shirts getting suspended on a school-sanctioned Coca-Cola appreciation day. The point is there’s a ton of examples, they just need to be pointed out.

Part of students’ apathy toward their first freedoms may be due to the fact the groups that strongly support the First Amendment, such as the Society of Professional Journalists, aren’t developing persuasive arguments for their cause. When I was actively involved in SPJ, they were sponsoring writing contests with an essay prompt along the lines of “What does the First Amendment mean to you?” Doesn’t your brain bubble with thoughts with such a scintillating question?

Unfortunately the problem I see is that many modern discussions involve how the First Amendment is limited by some practical concerns. Broadcast regulations, active combat concerns and the fact that primary and secondary schools can limit student newspapers are all issues that muddy the First Amendment picture. At the same time, a greater comprehension of the Bill of Rights would only help students and adults navigate their way through such muddy waters.