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February 7, 2005

High Schoolers Take First Amendment Survey

A study by two UConn professors of more than 500 high schools around the country has uncovered widespread ignorance about the First Amendment, with students showing less tolerance than adults of the idea that people should be allowed to express unpopular opinions.

More than a third of the students surveyed agreed, after having the First Amendment read to them, that it goes too far in the rights it guarantees – freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition.

The survey, commissioned by the James S. and James L. Knight Foundation, was conducted by David Yalof, professor of political science, and Kenneth Dautrich, head of the new Department of Public Policy in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

The results of the study, said Hodding Carter III, president and chief executive officer of the Knight Foundation, are “not only disturbing, they are dangerous.”

Half of the students agreed that newspapers should be free to publish without government approval of stories, and 83 percent said people should be allowed to express unpopular views, compared with 97 percent of the 7,900 teachers and 99 percent of the 327 principals who were surveyed.

“Ignorance about the basics of this free society is a danger to our nation’s future,” said Carter.

The results were released at a Washington, D.C. press conference last week and were featured in USA Today. The Knight Foundation reported widespread interest from the international media when the results were released.

The positive news from the research, said Dautrich, is that “schools that do focus on the First Amendment and put it in the curriculum do produce students with higher levels of tolerance. Schools can make a difference.”

Overall, however, the study shows that “the First Amendment does not get a great jump start in America’s high schools,” said Yalof. “Obviously there’s a lot more work that needs to be done in the nation’s high schools with regard to civics education.”

The $1 million project surveyed 112,000 students, nearly 8,000 teachers, and more than 300 administrators and principals from 544 randomly chosen high schools. It found that nearly three-quarters of students surveyed said they didn’t know how they feel about the First Amendment or they take it for granted.

Seventy-five percent said they thought flag burning is illegal, and nearly half thought the government can restrict indecent material on the Internet.

More than 20 percent of the schools offer no outlets for student media, such as a school newspaper. Of the high schools without a student newspaper, 40 percent had eliminated them within the past five years.

That finding is significant because students who worked on a school newspaper or took journalism or civics classes were the most aware and appreciative of First Amendment rights.

Annual surveys conducted by Dautrich and Yalof for The Freedom Forum have shown that 30 percent of adult Americans feel that the First Amendment “goes too far.”

Dautrich and Yalof plan to use the data from the study to write a reflective, scholarly book about the First Amendment and young people.

“This report is the tip of the iceberg,” Dautrich said.

For more information about the study, go to