Survey says: More Americans support student press freedom

Respect for professional journalism remains low

VIRGINIA -- A slightly increasing minority of Americans support free-press rights for high school students, according to a recent survey.

In The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center's survey, "The State of the First Amendment 2000," released in early July, respondents were asked whether they believe high school students should be allowed to report on controversial issues without the approval of school authorities.

Forty-three percent strongly or mildly agreed that students should have the right to cover hard-hitting stories. That number is up 6 percent from last year's survey.

Paul McMasters, Freedom Forum ombudsman, said that although the numbers are up, it will take a few more years to determine how people really feel about high school press rights.

"I'm not sure that isn't explained by just an ordinary fluctuation that you would see over time," McMasters said. "We'd have to have a couple more years to see if there is any trend there."

McMasters said the main problem is many people do not think high school journalists are entitled to the same rights as their professional counterparts merely because they are students.

"I think also there are a lot of people that think, 'Hey, this is a school, it's a learning environment and kids shouldn't be able to do the same things they would do in adult life in exercising their freedoms,'" McMasters said. "To me that is a hasty and thoughtless view. We expose them to the same sort of physical dangers in football as their professional and collegiate counterparts-yet at the same time we try to rationalize or justify restrictions on high school press, especially by saying they're just kids and they don't know how to use these dangerous tools of journalism."

Unfortunately, McMasters said, there is no quick fix. He said people do not understand that students need a place to practice using their rights before they enter the professional world.

"Well, the easy answer and the hard solution is education," McMasters said. "People have to do a better job of understanding that if they want a good, responsible, accurate press in real life, they ought to let them start learning at the student level."

Many high school administrators think the purpose of a student paper is to cover positive news, McMasters said.

"Then there's the other aspect and that comes mainly from school officials and school board members, and that is that the school press is to function as a promotional or public relations tool of the school," McMasters said. "So all of these things combine to give a rather crimped view of First Amendment rights of student journalists."

Despite the increase in support for the student press, respect for the professional media is still low. According to the survey, only 38 percent of respondents strongly believed news organizations should be able to report or publish what they think is appropriate.

Robert Corn-Revere, a First Amendment attorney, said that although the overall numbers are a little disappointing, it is important to look at the bigger picture.

"I think it is important to keep these findings in perspective," Corn-Revere said. "This is not a national referendum, it is more like a national mood ring. I think, ironically, 63 percent felt education on the First Amendment was at least fair. Yet 37 percent couldn't name a single First Amendment right."

"The State of the First Amendment 2000" Survey is available on The Freedom Forum's Web site at:

Fall 2000, reports