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Executive Summary and Key Findings

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation's High School Initiative seeks to encourage students to use the news media, including student journalism, and to better understand and appreciate the First Amendment. As part of the initiative, the foundation funded this "Future of the First Amendment'' research project, focusing on the knowledge and attitudes of high school students, teachers and administrators. Specifically, the study seeks to determine whether relationships exist - and, if so, the nature of those relationships - between what teachers and administrators think, and what students do in their classrooms and with news media, and what they know about the First Amendment. Ultimately, the project surveyed more than 100,000 high school students, nearly 8,000 teachers and more than 500 administrators and principals at 544 high schools across the United States.

High school students' attitudes about the First Amendment are important because each generation of citizens helps define what freedom means in our society. The words of the First Amendment - 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 - do not change, but how we interpret them does. In recent years, in fact, annual surveys of adult Americans conducted by The Freedom Forum show that public support for the First Amendment is neither universal nor stable: it rises and falls during times of national crisis. In the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks, the nation was almost evenly split on the question of whether or not the First Amendment "goes too far in the rights it guarantees.'' Not until 2004 did America 's support for the First Amendment return to pre 9-11 levels, when it received support from only about two-thirds of the population. Even in the best of times, 30 percent of Americans feel that the First Amendment, the centuries-old cornerstone of our Bill of Rights, "goes too far.''

How will America 's high school students affect this balance? "The Future of the First Amendment'' findings are not encouraging. It appears, in fact, that our nation's high schools are failing their students when it comes to instilling in them appreciation for the First Amendment. This study, the most comprehensive of its kind, shows that nearly three of every four students do not think about the First Amendment or say they take its rights for granted.

The study suggests that First Amendment values can be taught - that the more students are exposed to news media and to the First Amendment, the greater their understanding of the rights of American citizens. But it also shows that basics about the First Amendment are not being taught, that 75 percent of the students surveyed think flag burning is illegal, that nearly 50 percent believe the government can censor the Internet, and that many students do not think newspapers should publish freely.

Administrators say student learning about the First Amendment is a priority, but not a high priority.


This web site is produced by J-IDEAS
  J-IDEAS is funded in part by the John S. and James 
L. Knight Foundation's
High School Initiative
and Ball State University.
Department ofJournalism
Ball State University, Muncie, Ind. 47306 (765) 285-8923
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