Student approval of American freedoms increases as First Amendment controversies take stage worldwide

Over 200 years ago, the Bill of Rights was added to the United States Constitution. The document included 10 amendments that allow every American citizen a basic set of rights that cannot be repealed.

Setting the groundwork for rights across the globe was the first of those 10 amendments. With rates on censorship rising across the globe and attacks on basic freedoms on the rise in the forms of terrorist attacks like the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris and the shooting in Copenhagen, Denmark, later that year, some are arguing that First Amendment rights matter more than ever. A new study by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation shows that high school students care more about the First Amendment than their adult peers. Some attributed this rise in support of the First Amendment to the fact that students did not live through the post-9/11 era, where the National Security Agency (NSA) rose to the forefront, and national security was often prioritized above personal freedoms. Jon Sotsky of the Knight Foundation confirms this in an interview he gave to The Guardian about the poll. “14 to 18-year-olds were still in diapers on 9/11. The big question is how they will respond over the passage of time,” Sotsky said in his interview with the British publication.

Excalibur Yearbook adviser Lisa Keene said it is not a shocker that students value the First Amendment more than adults. “I work with high school students, and I’ve worked with high school students for a long time now. So (them appreciating the First Amendment more than adults) doesn’t really surprise me,” Keene said. “Plus, I think that students are interested in their freedoms and their rights, and pushing the limits and figuring out what they need to do and what they can do. I think it makes sense that students are going to be some of the people that are watching and policing our First Amendment rights.”

Indiana High School Press Association (IHSPA) Director Diana Hadley believes adults sometimes do not value their basic rights. “I think that sometimes adults begin to take their freedoms for granted. As high school students become adults and gain more independence overall, they embrace the fact that the First Amendment includes them and thus allows them to speak to their interests,” Hadley said. Some argue that the rise of presidential candidates such as Donald Trump has added to the tension surrounding First Amendment rights. Trump in particular has made statements that challenge the First Amendment’s freedom of the press. As the billionaire businessman said, if elected he would “change the libel laws” to cut down on criticisms of the presidency by the media. Libel laws currently allow public citizens to sue if someone writes a false or malicious article about them. Trump is in favor of expanding these laws to block many forms of criticisms, essentially restricting the freedom of the press.

Sophomore Maram Fares spent part of her life in Jordan. She stated that the experience helped her appreciate her First Amendment rights more so than she did before. Americans who do not see how life is in the Middle East can take their rights for granted.

Hadley believes that the manipulation from certain politicians is hurting press freedoms in the United States and tricking people into believing they would work.

“Politicians who want to change libel laws want to control the media. Citizens who don’t counter those attempts probably don’t realize how devastating it would be if we stopped supporting coverage that might not be favorable but true and important to understand and resolve issues,” Hadley said.

However, to many, President Barack Obama’s current administration has been harsh on First Amendment rights, especially toward the press. In an article she wrote for Forbes, Jennifer Granick, the Director of Civil Liberties at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, stated that “President Obama’s has been the most aggressive Administration in history, not only in going after whistleblowers but also pursuing the reporters who write their stories.” Reporters Without Borders largely backs up Granick’s claims that the U.S. has fallen to 41 on the organization’s annual World Press Freedom report. The nation fell to an all-time low of 49 in 2015 and has fallen 21 spots since President Obama took office in 2009.

CPTV senior Johnny Supan is thankful for the First Amendment because it allows his group to say what they need to without the threat of government action. “The First Amendment means to me that I have the right to disclose what I want and establish myself more freely. (I can) protest what I want to protest, but it basically just gives me the rights I deserve as an American,” Supan said.

To Hadley, the First Amendment provides the base for her to speak her mind all within such a small amount of words. “The First Amendment allows me to speak about issues that are important to me through all media platforms, to assemble or petition and to practice any religion I choose, all in just 45 words. What a succinct guarantee of my freedom,” Hadley said.

Government teacher Don Bernacky says the First Amendment sets the standard for daily life.

“The First Amendment is really about empowering us to act socially and politically. It’s one of those ones that is out there to govern what you’re allowed to say, how you’re allowed to think, how you’re allowed to express yourself in public, who you’re allowed to associate with. (It’s) everything you really need to have an economic basis and a political basis for public life,” Bernacky said. In much of the world, the freedoms Americans are allowed do not exist. And in many other parts of the globe, government action is eating away at basic freedoms. Turkish president Recep Erdogan is attacking the freedom of the press and speech, locking up thousands of journalists for merely criticizing his presidency. He also asked German Chancellor Angela Merkel to lock up a journalist who drew a negative cartoon criticizing his leadership. “You can see in places what is going on right now in Turkey. Those rights are being eroded very quickly, almost before our eyes. We are seeing the place fall away from being one (of) the great democracies in the Middle East into a dictatorship. They’re doing it by taking away what we would consider to be our First Amendment freedoms. You can’t criticize the government (or) gather in public without permission,” Bernacky said.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) took center stage last year around Indiana. The state allowed businesses to deny services to LGBT people based on religious grounds, prompting another face off about the freedoms of the First Amendment. Public pressure eventually made the state’s government cavein with them passing a so-called “fix” to RFRA.

Hadley’s organization is moving towards expanding the freedoms of student journalists sometime in the near future by passing a state law to override the Supreme Court’s decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988), which restricted student press freedoms.

“IHSPA is starting preliminary groundwork to propose legislation for student press freedom in Indiana — possibly as soon as the 2017 legislative session,” Hadley

In the future, Hadley said that the rise of technology could lead to more challenges to the First Amendment’s freedoms. “There are always challenges to the First Amendment,” Hadley said. “As communications technology evolves, interpretation of its use will be a monumental issue for journalists, government officials and citizens who will have different opinions on levels of security, privacy and free flow of information.”

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