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First Amendment Ignorance: Survey Reveals Land of the Free and Uninformed

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Are we an ignorant nation -- aside, of course, from knowing all things Kardashian, Bieber and Cyrus?

OK, "ignorant" may be too harsh a word, but how else do we label the twin facts that only 14 percent of adults in the United States know that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects the press and that nearly 30 percent cannot name a single right guaranteed by that amendment?

Those are some of the truly troubling findings of a First Amendment Center survey -- just released Tuesday and conducted in May -- of slightly more than 1,000 adults nationwide.

However, Americans' utter ignorance of the First Amendment comes as anything but a shock to those who have tracked the Center's annual "State of the First Amendment" survey since 1997.

In fact, the 14-percent figure regarding knowledge of press freedom actually is an improvement over the survey's inaugural results 17 years ago. That's when a scant 11 percent of adults knew that the First Amendment protects freedom of the press.

"As a nation, it's clear once again we still do not provide enough basic education about our core freedoms -- even enough to simply know the five freedoms of the First Amendment," said Gene Policinski, chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the First Amendment Center, in email correspondence.

In fact, knowledge of the First Amendment is something that people seeking U.S. citizenship must possess. It's right there on page 2 of the civics-test portion of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service's study booklet, called Learn About the United States.

Then again, as Policinski points out, people who already are U.S. citizens can remain blissfully ignorant of the First Amendment because they "enjoy its protection of our core freedoms by virtue of living here."

For the record, the First Amendment provides that:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

But the new survey findings are not all bad, especially for budding journalists at the high-school level, like those attending the Summer Journalism Institute this week at the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida. Why? Because 68 percent of the adults surveyed either strongly or mildly agreed with the statement that "public school students should be allowed to report on controversial issues in their student newspapers without the approval of school authorities."

That's a vast improvement over the 40-percent support for student journalists in 2001, and the 47-percent figure in 2007. Why the shift?

"Parents and administrators are waking up to the idea that a student publication that has an advisor and a staff that are serious about learning the profession and accountable for what they write, post and broadcast, is preferable to a Twitter post or a blog that might be anonymous, filled with rumor and that lacks accountability after the fact," Policinski told me. He adds that "this dramatic change from 2001 ... seems a recognition that students can communicate directly and in an instant, and that censoring their is not only inappropriate, but largely ineffective."

Adding to the good news is the fact that after those surveyed were clued in about the First Amendment safeguarding a free press, 80 percent agreed with the statement that "it is important for our democracy that the news media act as a watchdog on government."

So maybe "ignorant" really was too cruel a word after all. As Policinski suggests, a little bit of education might go a long way.

And the high-school journalists who increasingly are winning public support in the First Amendment Center's survey need to reinforce the purpose and importance of a free press with quality watchdog reporting, both now and when they go pro.