“If I had to choose between government without newspapers, and newspapers without government, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose the latter.” — Thomas Jefferson
Today, half of U.S. high school students surveyed believe newspaper stories should require government approval. Pravda, anyone?We shouldn’t be surprised. Freedom of the press died in the U.S. schoolroom on January 13, 1988 when the Supreme Court ruled that high schools can censor student newspapers.
As an outspoken high school newspaper editor in the early 1990s, I argued that in the 1950s the biggest problems were kids running in the halls and chewing gum in class. By the 1990s, teen pregnancy wasn’t even in the top two. Drugs and guns had pushed it out.
I argued that high school journalists should be permited to pursue tough issues. Their chances of solving any of those issues approaches zero, but their chances of helping their readers to feel less alone were pretty good. And I wouldn’t have minded if the newspapers made the administration a bit more accountable too–this was only a year or two after Pump up the Volume came out, after all.
I also argued that school’s job was to teach kids how to operate in the real world, and if they spent their late teens in a totalitarian regime, then they wouldn’t know what to do with their freedom when they turned 18.
Does this new study prove I was right?
Democrats and Republicans both agree that the government’s job is to protect its citizens from thugs. Where they disagree is on the definition of the word “thugs,” and, to a lesser degree, on how to go about doing the protecting.
But that’s irrelevant. The government’s job is to protect its citizens from thugs is turning into Citizens’ job is to protect the government from thugs. That’s backwards.
Maybe we need to worry less about test scores and start making sure we teach the basics. I knew what libel was when I was in the seventh grade. We re-enacted the Trial of John Peter Zenger. I don’t know how many of my classmates remember it, but we were presented with the concept and we all knew, if only for a moment, why it was important. Chances are even if the names and dates and other details are forgotten, one who studied the case in school will at least be left with the gut feeling that government censorship of newspapers is wrong.
I don’t know what history and civics teachers are being told to teach today, but obviously the constitution is lacking in the curriculum.
And that’s a problem, because once the First Amendment falls, most of the others will fall right with it, and the few that manage to remain won’t be worth having anymore anyway. I suspect that’s why Jefferson, who couldn’t open a newspaper without reading someone blasting something he’d done or not done, still considered newspapers more important than government.