Monthly Archives: February 2005

Right to Disinterest

My interest was piqued when I came across this CNN story about a recent survey asking high school students, faculty, and principals about the first amendment. Even though I don’t normally post news commentary, I found some moderately amusing facts that I didn’t see noted elsewhere…

Update: CNN seems to have taken down their writeup, so I removed the link.

It’s true that the results are pretty distressing, the students did atrociously on the fact-based questions in the survey. A disturbing percentage of them also seemed willing to accept moderate or even severe limitations on freedoms of speech and press. They didn’t fare too much worse than faculty and administrators at their schools, though, and it’s hard to imagine how students could have done well given the knowledge of those responsible for their education. The poor performance of teachers was downplayed in articles about the study and is not mentioned at all in the key findings of the study itself.

  • Nearly half of the teachers surveyed don’t feel that musicians should be allowed to sing songs with lyrics that might be offensive to some. Younger generations are a little more liberal, less than a third of the students felt similarly.
  • One out of five teachers aren’t sure that newspapers should be allowed to publish stories without government approval, but surprisingly almost half of the students feel the same way. Perhaps it’s only a coincidence that most high school faculty and principals feel that student papers should require the approval of school authorities.
  • Three quarters of the students surveyed incorrectly believe that it’s illegal to burn a flag in political protest. One third of the teachers are under the same misconception, and apparently they’re doing a fantastic job getting through to their students on that issue.
  • Half of the students incorrectly believe that the government can restrict indecent content on the internet. Faculty and principals don’t know, either… also evenly split. It’s a funny question, though. The government absolutely does regulate content on the internet. There are currently existing federal statutes restricting the distribution of obscene material and child pornography. A 1997 Supreme Court ruling did narrow the scope of material restricted by the Communications Decency Act by allowing publication of “indecent” material, leaving in place restrictions on “obscene” material… but it seems a little dishonest to write a survey question directed at high-school students whose correct interpretation depends on the definition of a word that had its meaning disputed all the way to the Supreme Court.
  • More than half of faculty and principals surveyed think they’re doing a good job teaching about first amendment freedoms.
  • 2% of faculty aren’t certain what the highest level of education they received was. Kudos to the survey team for anticipating the need for a “Don’t know” option on that question.

The survey, partially funded by the Knight Foundation, didn’t explore non-governmental impediments to free information flow, such as consolidated media markets.