A recent survey regarding high school students’ appreciation and understanding of their First Amendment rights has produced results that are nothing short of shocking. The survey, conducted by the University of Connecticut, found that one in three of the 112,003 students surveyed said the freedom of the press should be “more restricted” — a full 36 percent of the students said newspapers should receive governmental approval before publication. When asked whether the press enjoys too much freedom, not enough, or about the right amount, a staggering 32 percent said “too much,” while only 10 percent answered “too little.” Perhaps more disturbing is the fact that many of the students surveyed appeared to be ignorant as to what the First Amendment guaranteed; a startling 75 percent of students thought defacing the American flag was illegal, despite a U.S. Supreme Court case explicitly protecting such freedom of expression. It appears that students not only lack appreciation of their political rights, but also fail to comprehend what rights the Constitution provides them. In a country that aims to export political freedom across the globe, it is deeply disturbing that a large sect of the young population does not understand or appreciate the freedoms it enjoys.
These statistics are a particular cause for concern in the current political climate, in which free speech is exceedingly necessary. In times of war and political division, freedom of speech is vital in ensuring that diverse opinions — even those critical of the government or mainstream public — are disseminated. If the right to free speech is not valued or if the press is censored and its right to publish without governmental intervention is stripped, America will be in grave danger of following in the footsteps of the countries it persistently condemns. The unfettered flow of ideas, intrinsic to liberal democracy, will be stifled. It is worrisome that the high school students who participated in this survey do not seem to comprehend the importance of the rights guaranteed to them by the nation’s Founding Fathers, or the tremendous costs that this nation would suffer if they were infringed.
Already, this nation has suffered as constitutional rights have been slowly infringed by dubious government initiatives. In a society where journalists are jailed for refusing to disclose sources, personal privacy is thrown in jeopardy in the name of national security and the line between church and state is consistently blurred, we cannot afford to grow apathetic toward the rights enshrined in the Constitution. That America’s high school students — this nation’s future — seem willing to gut the First Amendment is nothing short of dangerous.
The protection of the First Amendment is not a partisan issue; it is a cornerstone of our nation’s principles. This survey should deeply disturb any American who values the rights guaranteed under the Constitution. It should be seen foremost as a red flag: Students are not spending enough time learning about the First Amendment and its integral role in American society. Students ought to be thoroughly versed not only in the rights they are guaranteed under the amendment, but also in the important implications of their rights. Each student who graduates from an American high school needs to be aware of and have full respect for the rights guaranteed to them and all American citizens by the First Amendment. Apathy and ignorance must not erode the fundamental rights that the founders of this nation chose to enshrine in the Constitution.