A Suburban Surprise
Researchers at the University of Connecticut caused quite a stir last winter when they reported in a nationwide study of 112,000 high school students that America’s high schools are leaving the First Amendment behind.
Hundreds of newspapers and web sites picked up the story. Many wondered out loud: At a time when we are at war in the name of freedom, how could it be? How could schools be failing to instill an appreciation of the basic ideals of our democracy?
Well, David Yalof and Ken Dautrich, the researchers, are at it again, releasing new findings from the study funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. America’s suburban schools should brace themselves: the research focusing on regional and community-type differences shows that lack of awareness and appreciation of the First Amendment is most acute in an area you might not expect -- the relatively well-to-do and student-media-rich suburban schools of our nation.
The findings, as well as the original report, can be seen at www.firstamendmentfuture.org.
The original report showed that high schools were doing a poor job in instilling an appreciation for the First Amendment. Many young Americans surveyed said they welcomed government censorship of the media.
In the wake of the original report, commentators from the right and left joined voices in support of First Amendment awareness, from Kathleen Parker to Michael Moore to Rush Limbaugh to Bob Herbert – even Dear Abby. James Spader, the actor, took up the cause in his role of lawyer Alan Shore, delivering an impassioned defense of the First Amendment in a high school in an oral argument in an episode of the TV series "Boston Legal."...students exposed to journalism classes and various forms of student media were more likely to be tolerant of the five freedoms of the First Amendment
There was some good news in the original study: students exposed to journalism classes and various forms of student media were more likely to be tolerant of the five freedoms of the First Amendment: speech, religion, press, assembly and petition. Those not exposed were more likely to be indifferent or oppose those freedoms.
But a deeper analysis of the data provided a shocker. Suburban schools, those with the most resources, the most classes, the most forms of media, lagged behind rural and urban schools. Those greater resources available in the suburbs – where some schools have a student newspaper, yearbook, sports magazine, literary magazine, web site, TV and more – do not parlay into greater tolerance and support for the First Amendment.
"Yes, it’s a sad story," said Susan Hathaway Tantillo, an Illinois educator and local site chair for the November convention of the Journalism Education Association (JEA) in Chicago. JEA traditionally is the largest gathering of high school journalists and teachers in the land. "The findings are right on the money."
The research, which also probed regional differences in attitudes, showed that urban students (86 percent) were more likely than suburban students (81 percent) and rural students (82 percent) to think people should be allowed to express unpopular opinions.
The differences are considered statistically significant in part because of the unusually high number of participants in the study. The researchers said a difference of two percentage points or more between any two subgroups in the survey has a 95 percent chance of indicating significant differences among those subgroups in the population at large.
Student publications are most prevalent in the suburbs, where 82 percent of the schools offer student newspapers as an activity, compared with 77 percent of urban schools and 68 percent of rural schools.
Some teachers and scholastic journalism experts said they found themselves scratching their heads over the latest research. Some said the study confirmed feelings they had all along.
Rod Kuhn, a journalism teacher and publication adviser at Homestead High School in Fort Wayne, Ind., attributed the results to good old-fashioned politics. "Suburban families tend to be conservative. Kids normally pick up the politics of their parents. (Many of those parents) feel strongly that liberal politics threaten their lifestyle, and they see liberties such as the First Amendment as a threat to that lifestyle."
Interestingly, researcher Yalof probed the political question by comparing student attitudes from the so-called red states, which supported Republican George Bush in the last two presidential elections, against the blue states, which supported Democrats Al Gore and John Kerry in 2000 and 2004, respectively. He found no significant differences in attitudes about the First Amendment. Nor did he find significant variation in attitudes regionally.
"The last elections revealed sharp political divisions in the American political landscape," said Yalof. "Yet many student opinions about the First Amendment and freedom of the press tend to stay remarkably consistent across these otherwise widely accepted political fault lines."
Yet Yalof agrees that the political division showed in the suburban findings. "I think you find that greater per capita income translates into people who are more conservative politically and distanced from an issue such as freedom of speech and press," he said.
An "attitude of entitlement"
Dawn Nelson, former director of the Colorado High School Press Association, said the issue goes beyond politics. She remarked that suburban students have an "attitude of entitlement," and are used to taking direction – and are accustomed to privilege. They have sacrificed the First Amendment for perceived safety and comfort, and hold tenaciously to the status quo.
"The kids in the suburbs are all focused on getting into good colleges and don’t want to get caught up in a controversy. They’re worried about angering the administration and not getting a good college recommendation," she said.
Ann Akers, assistant director of the National Scholastic Press Association and a former teacher, said her eyes were opened when she first advised a journalism program at a suburban California high school a few years ago.Suburban kids don’t want to rock the boat. They avoid controversy. They go along with authority all the time. They’re comfortable.
"We were putting the paper together in the journalism room one night, and I heard a lot of banging down the hall from the student lockers," she said. "I asked the students what the noise was. They said matter-of-factly that it was probably another locker search.
"I said to the kids that they should write something about that for the paper. But no one seemed fazed. One student remarked, ‘Why is that a story? The administration owns the lockers, don’t they?’"
Said Akers: "Suburban kids don’t want to rock the boat. They avoid controversy. They go along with authority all the time. They’re comfortable."
Journalism student Nancy Eichhohltz of Lawrence Central High School in the Indianapolis suburbs said she thinks very little about the First Amendment, adding: "I’ve never really felt that First Amendment freedoms were on the verge of being taken away from me."
Andrew Beaulieu, a journalism student at North Side High School in Fort Wayne, Ind., said most students are indifferent.
"I don’t think kids our age really think about the First Amendment," she said. "They have their own lives and are really wrapped up in that."
Nick Ferentinos, an educational consultant in San Francisco, attributes the latest findings to the overall erosion of student media and increased censorship of student voices by principals and administrators.
In particular, he worries that the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision Hazelwood vs. Kuhlmeier, which allowed principal censorship of student media in limited circumstances, is having a "chilling" effect on students and teachers.
"It’s becoming reality," he said. "Kids are self-censoring."
Regional, red-blue state differences
Researchers Yalof and Dautrich also analyzed differences in opinions by region as well as the differences between blue states and red states.
Some variations in intensity of student attitudes were found geographically on the issue of whether people should be allowed to express unpopular opinions. While 85 percent of Northeasterners and 86 percent of Midwesterners agreed with that right only 81 percent of Southerners and 80 percent of Westerners felt that way.
But the difference in support for unpopular expression between students from red states and students from blue states was negligible, according to the researchers. Eighty-three percent of the students from red states and 84 percent of the students from blue states agreed that people should be allowed to express unpopular opinions.
"Students from different geographical regions tend to exhibit minor differences in their attitudes about the First Amendment in general," said the researchers. "By contrast, significant differences were noticeable when comparing the attitudes and experiences of students from suburban communities to those from rural and urban communities."
(Warren Watson, a 30-year reporter and editor at U.S. newspapers, teaches journalism at Ball State University, where he directs J-Ideas, a national institute dedicated to excellence in high school journalism, First Amendment awareness and media literacy. He can be reached at email@example.com. J-Ideas associate Gerry Appel contributed to this report. J-Ideas is part of the Knight Foundation First Amendment initiative and developed and maintains the Future of the First Amendment web site.)