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Do Teens Care About Free Speech?
Janill Briones

“OK, so how many people here actually know what the First Amendment is?” I asked, standing in front of my first period English class. “Just raise your hand.” I was conducting a survey on teens’ opinions of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the rights that it gives us.

My jaw dropped when only eight out of the 20 students raised their hand. I’d expected more of my classmates at Science Skills Center HS to know that the First Amendment guarantees Americans freedom of speech and of the press. It gives us the right to express our opinions and allows us to know the truth about what’s going on in our society.

The First Amendment also prevents our government from choosing one religion as an official religion and allows us to follow whatever religion we want. It protects our right to form groups to discuss politics and government issues, and to protest peacefully. I figured since we’d all taken U.S. history the previous year, we might have known a bit about our First Amendment.

Too Much Freedom?

I was conducting my survey because I wanted to see how my classmates’ views on First Amendment rights compared with teens’ views across the country. Earlier this year, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation released the results of a similar survey of 112,003 high school students nationwide. The survey received a lot of media attention because the results seemed to show that American high school students didn’t know much about our First Amendment rights, let alone appreciate them.

When I read the Knight survey results myself, I was surprised to find out that 35% of the students surveyed thought that the First Amendment “goes too far in the rights it guarantees.” A third of students also thought that the American press (newspapers, magazines and other media) had “too much freedom to do what it wants.” That surprised me too.

I find it scary that my peers think that we have too much freedom to express ourselves. After all, our generation is going to be leading our country one day. Are we going to end up like China, where you can be thrown in jail for disagreeing with the government?

Our press is what keeps our government honest. In the early 1970s, two Washington Post reporters uncovered that members of President Richard Nixon’s re-election committee had broken into the Watergate Hotel to steal documents from Democratic Party headquarters. The reporters’ investigations into these crimes led to Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

What Do Freshmen Know?

I was discouraged by the idea that so many teens didn’t appreciate the importance of a free press. But looking closely at the Knight survey, I started having doubts about how reliable the survey results were.

For example, freshmen made up the largest group surveyed. While news stories about the survey expressed shock about how ignorant teens were about First Amendment rights, in my experience, freshmen wouldn’t have taken classes dealing with the First Amendment yet. In my school, we get U.S. history, which includes mention of the Constitution, in our junior year.

If most of the people taking the Knight survey hadn’t had the chance to take a class on the First Amendment, how could they give a knowledgeable opinion on it? That’s why, for my version of the survey, I decided to ask only juniors and seniors.

City vs. Country

image by Leo Maisouradze

Another reason I wanted do my own survey is that I noticed that 47% of the schools in the nationwide survey were in rural areas. That’s a high percentage, because according to the 2000 U.S. Census, only about 20% of the nation’s population lives in rural areas.

I thought that difference might affect the results of the survey. I’ve never lived in a rural area, but I thought that people living in small isolated towns without much diversity might not be as liberal as city-dwellers, and might think the way everybody else around them does. I thought that if I surveyed people in the city, where we’re used to a variety of people and opinions, there might be different thoughts about the First Amendment.

To see how the answers of teens at my downtown Brooklyn school compared to those of the national survey, I used the same questions (word for word) as in the original survey. When I handed out the survey in class, though, some students asked me what certain questions meant and I realized that some of the questions were confusing.

Questions About Questions

For example, one of the questions asks whether we agree or disagree with the statement “The First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees.” When someone asked me what the question meant, I realized I wasn’t sure.

I thought it might be asking whether we think that the First Amendment promises more rights than it delivers. So someone agreeing with the statement would be saying that we actually have fewer rights than the Constitution promises us.

When I asked my editor about it, she said she thought that the question was asking whether we thought that the First Amendment gives us too many rights. In this case, someone agreeing with the statement would be saying that the Constitution gives us too much freedom.

Then we realized that the question might be misread as simply asking whether we agree or disagree with the First Amendment. The question is confusing because it’s so much longer than all the others. It includes a brief introduction, the entire First Amendment, and then asks whether we agree or disagree with the statement.

Know Your Rights

Despite the confusing questions (or maybe because of them), the results of my survey were similar to those of the national survey. So it may be true that many of us teens are ignorant of our First Amendment rights, or that we don’t think those rights are important.

If that’s the case, then schools should make an effort to have more lessons on the First Amendment. But I also think that teens should make it their responsibility to know what their rights are, not sit around waiting to be taught.

Given the survey’s flaws, though, I don’t think we can be so sure that its results are an accurate reflection of teens’ attitudes toward the First Amendment.

This story is part of the media/news literacy series, which is generously supported by the McCormick Foundation.

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