Sunday, February 13, 2005

High Schools & the First Amendment

Recently, the John S. & James L. Knight Foundation commissioned a study, "...focusing on the knowledge and attitudes of high school students, teachers and administrators..." regarding the First Amendment. This study received some notice in the press, but was quickly superseded by other items in the news. Vox Day commented on it, but unfortunately committed the sin of not actually reading the study - he got his data from a USA today article.

If one actually reads the study, they'll see that it is a snapshot of current opinions about the First Amendment. This snapshot includes both Public and Private schools, and teachers and administrators, as well as students. It also becomes fairly obvious that it's targeted at drumming up support for providing additional resources for journalism courses for High Schools.

As a libertarian, I'm certainly dismayed that the First Amendment doesn't receive more respect by High School students than this study shows. But one must note that the study does not discuss trends and there's no comparison with any population outside of the one being surveyed. For example, while it may be true that only 50% of students surveyed (who were not school newspaper participants) believed that Newspapers should be able to publish freely without government approval of a story, I can't tell from this study if the situation is getting better or worse. And I have no way to know if the situation is better or worse at Public or Private schools. Nor can I tell if the grade level makes a difference, urban vs. rural, boys vs. girls, etc.

The only breakdown shown in the study was in regards to if a student had taken a Journalism course or not. The study results indicated that students who took Journalism courses were more cognizant of the First Amendment, but the chicken-and-egg question remains; did the student take the Journalism course(s) because they appreciated the First Amendment more than the "average student" or did they learn to appreciate the First Amendment because of the Journalism course(s) they took?

I spoke with Mr. Warren Watson, the study contact, and he referred me to Mr. Ken Dautrich, who coordinated this study. Mr. Dautrich indicated that some of these breakdowns would be coming "in the next month or two". But even then, these breakdowns will only be for this snapshot, and we'll be unable to tell, for now, if things are getting better or worse. I applaud the authors for establishing this baseline and hope that a similar study will be taken in a few years to begin to establish a trend. And it would be very useful if later studies could somehow include home-schooled students.

When these additional breakdowns become available, I will comment on them.

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