Wednesday, March 02, 2005

First Amendmentitis

During the past week there have been several news articles, blogs, and general alarms about youth and the First Amendment. These emanate from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation study that gives high school students very low grades on their appreciation of the rights given in the First Amendment. It is stated in the Knight report that


  • Nearly three-fourths of high school students either do not know how they feel about the First Amendment or admit they take it for granted.
  • Seventy-five percent erroneously think flag burning is illegal.
  • Half believe the government can censor the Internet.
  • More than a third think the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees.

  • According to some sources about 100,000 high school teenagers were interviewed about the First Amendment and asked to express themselves about related issues. The results you see reported above are not hopeful. But are they accurate?! Do 100,000 students represent the millions of current students? How were they selected? Who asked the questions?

    One observer, Alexander Zaitchik, writing in New York Press, sees the Knight Report as evidence of a deepening crisis which is leading to an American fascism. He has a First Amendment right to say so, I am sure, but, well, maybe he is totally wrong, too!

    I am not so willing to take anything Zaitchik says at face value, nor I am willing to give the Knight people the podium until I see their polling script, their exact questions, the protocol under which this "research" was conducted, and the credentials of the review board(s) authorizing the study. Moreover, I am not willing to accept the notion that teenagers in the 1950's were little proto-fascists and that the nation was saved in the 1960's by the first cohort of Boomer teenagers. Generalizations like these are foolish and
    dangerous.

    The First Amendment is not in the forefront of the American imagination, however. None of them is. The Bill of Rights is taught hurriedly after a slog through the main body of the Constitution. The teachers barely understand it.

    Public education in high schools is a farce, a tragedy, and the darkest sort of betrayal. When civics courses are taught by the JV football coach and by graduates of state universities where academic majors and education (pedagogy curricula) are never integrated on campus and only under the hand of inept "master teachers" in the high school student teaching environment what on earth can we expect!

    Your good sense will tell you that presenting an ACLU type of question to a bare-naveled 15 year old high school femme is bound to elicit some bizarre responses. Surround a question with fear, distrust, notoriety and you get your window dressing back in the answer. The ACLU defends principles that are often difficult to equate to the general run of the mill exercise of First Amendment freedoms. ACLU often defends the notorious and the unpopular, for they have the same rights as the people who happen—this time—to hold the majority view. Young people have very little experience with this and could be expected to have very little to offer in response to "tough questions" like ACLU takes on.

    If each of the Knight questions were prefaced by the statement "I disagree with what you are about to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" would not the answer be conditioned to a higher level of discourse than surrounding the question with adrenalin-ridden allusions to the fallen World Trade Towers? Yes, of course! A responsible research protocol would do both, measure the effect, and ask the majority of its questions with as neutral a surround as humanly possible.

    This is not an apology for those high school students that do not know or do not care or deliberately respond in a way designed to provoke. Maybe they are a large group. I cannot say. Nor is this an apology for the failing school system. Clearly it did not function well in the 1950's and currently is on average a disaster throughout the country ... with some notable exceptions, of course.

    What this piece is about is responsibility for proper research. Until Knight publishes its research protocols, polling scripts, and questionnaires, until we discover what human subjects of research boards approved this research, it will have to be treated as unscientific hearsay. Yes, we should be ready to hear the truth, no matter how ugly it is, but equally we must demand to see how the truth is established.

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