CULTURE CLUB: Bill of Too Many Rights

Why do half of the nation’s teens think the government should approve this column?

Chuck Twardy

Do you think the government ought to censor news?

What percentage of Americans would answer that question "yes"?

Nearly half of all high-school students think so. When asked in a survey if "newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of stories," 49 percent welcomed government censorship. The survey, conducted by the Department of Public Policy at the University of Connecticut for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, not surprisingly found a niche in the nation's news hole last week. No doubt it alarmed editors already troubled by declining readership and reports that young people do not reap news from traditional sources.

It could not have been sanguine to learn additionally from the study, "The Future of the First Amendment," that 44 percent of high schoolers, when read the text of our nation's cornerstone of freedom, think it "goes too far in the rights it guarantees." A plurality—37 percent—of the more than 100,000 students surveyed at 544 high schools does not even know what it thinks about it.

This in particular surprises Amy Stepinski, journalism teacher at Valley High School. If you can assume anything about teenagers, she says, it's that "they're hypersensitive to their rights." And indeed, while nearly half believes the government should supervise newspaper content, 58 percent thinks "students should be allowed to report controversial issues in their school newspapers without approval of school authorities." And, oh yeah, "musicians should be allowed to sing songs with lyrics others may find offensive," according to 70 percent of teens.

But the willingness of high schoolers to curtail news reporting—"That was shocking," says Stepinski, who has taught journalism for four years, the last two at Valley. Stepinski says you have to process the survey findings through the prism of "the political climate."

Consider that for most teenagers, the central event of their shared lives, the wider world's wake-up call, was September 11, 2001. Their experience of current events since has been circumscribed by war, the Patriot Act and the government's embrace of torture and detention without trial. And a trace of messenger-murder intrudes here. Add into the daily mix of Jerry Springer outrages and Paris Hilton updates the clips of those towers tumbling over and over, and you produce a generation repulsed.

"I think that probably comes from the sensationalism," says Stepinski. "Maybe they're taking a moral stance."

Maybe. Maybe, too, they live in a country whose leader proudly proclaims his incuriosity, his aversion to complexity and his preference for "unfiltered" reports from his staff over news gathered by journalists. And perhaps they've already internalized the Karl Rove-Fox News information model, in which ideology is fact and facts are the propaganda of the opposition.

The survey also found that 83 percent of high-school students believe "people should be allowed to express unpopular opinions." That's lower than the 97 percent response from teachers and the 99 percent from principals, but still a solid affirmation of opinion. And opinion is the meat of the emerging mediascape. The Fox News program grid is a mosaic of shows whose hosts and guests blurt opinions; it should be Fox Blathers. Bloggers were credited in the last election with having scooped or discredited "traditional" news outlets, but weblogs are mostly rant strings.

The Knight Foundation survey reveals a generation maturing into a mind-set that cherishes the right to say anything, untroubled by evidence. Journalists have argued since the Internet's advent that a buffet of information is not a banquet of knowledge. But they've found their "gatekeeping" function reduced in the public mind to mere partisanship, and a succession of scandals and mistakes has only made matters worse.

Of course, the foundation blames schools for their students' ignorance about the First Amendment. The survey not surprisingly finds that students who take journalism classes or work for a student publication are more likely to be aware and supportive of free-speech rights than their fellows. Most administrators would like to offer more media opportunities to students, but do not have the funds, according to the survey.

"Most high schools in the Las Vegas Valley have journalism programs," says Stepinski, adding that her program, with 15 students at any time, is relatively small because "I'm new to the school." But she finds her students probing issues from creationism to appearance codes, for a newspaper that appears every other month, funds allowing. "They're fairly world-minded without a lot of probing."

Stepinski says journalism ranks with art and music among low-priority programs come budget time in most schools, but she's weary of schools shouldering the blame for every student shortcoming. "Schools are easy targets," she says. What about parents, for instance?

Which returns us to the opening question. The Knight report includes results from the Freedom Forum's annual "State of the First Amendment" survey, conducted by another group at the University of Connecticut. Those results find that 30 percent of adults think the First Amendment "goes too far," an improvement on the one-third that thought so after the 2001 attacks. Hardly a ringing endorsement for teens to mull.

We cannot blame schools for First Amendment ignorance, but we should expect that they prepare students for citizenship. Today that means much more than knowing phyla, covalents and quadratic equations. Understanding how to process the myriad bleatings of media—especially how to distinguish reporting from raving—should be a curriculum staple at every high school.

Chuck Twardy is a really smart guy who has written for several daily newspapers and for magazines such as Metropolis.

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