Students can't move on to high school without passing the U.S. Constitution test. Yet they can graduate from it without fully grasping the First Amendment. Why? Because the education system is failing teens when it comes to teaching them the greatest civics lesson of all?#34;free speech and free press.
A recent survey by the Knight Foundation revealed some disturbing findings. Of students surveyed at 544 high schools across the United States, three-fourths of teens have no real opinion on the First Amendment, and more than one-third think it goes too far in the rights it guarantees.
Many also believe people shouldn't express an unpopular opinion, but that fits right in with their position on newspapers. Only half say newspapers should be permitted to publish freely without government approval of stories. Given the post-9/11 climate in this country, their views are not entirely without precedent.
On a fictional level, they might have first come across similar notions while reading "1984." But then on a very real scale they witnessed the willingness of some adults to hand over certain rights in the hopes of increased safety. Ignorance spells doom for a democracy. If we want multiple perspectives to not only be allowed but encouraged, we need to act now. We must obliterate support for censorship it's fallacious and it's the antithesis of what makes our nation strong.
Schools should provide in-depth lessons about the First Amendment so students don't take liberties for granted. These lessons should be mandatory. We can't think of a more critical and relevant component of U.S. history than talking to teens about their rights and the importance of protecting them.
Thankfully, the Illinois First Amendment Center is not content to let the foundation on which America rests be eroded. We look forward to when the curriculum, crafted last month by a group of teachers, including one from Hinsdale Middle School, is ready for eighth- through 12th-graders next fall. We also would urge teens to get involved in their student newspaper and, better yet, for the schools to think of ways to increase exposure to the media in the classroom and as an extracurricular activity. The study showed students in journalism classes tended to better understand and appreciate their rights.
Teen attitudes about the First Amendment are especially crucial because each generation of citizens helps to define what freedom means in our society. These teens are future leaders and lawmakers. Let's make it our duty to turn them into well-informed, responsible citizens. That way, the legacy left by our forefathers not only survives but thrives, and later generations won't suffer oppression.
To receive your free First Amendment curriculum materials, please e-mail the Illinois First Amendment Center at firstamendment
This editorial was written by, and is re-printed with the permission of, Jim Slonoff, past president of the Illinois Press Association and publisher of "The Doings" newspapers.