By Mitchell W. Pearlman
The Connecticut Foundation for Open Government (CFOG) has been profoundly concerned that today’s students do not understand the First Amendment. Students have probably heard about “Fake News,” “Hate Speech,” and “Safe Spaces” on college campuses. But they simply don’t understand what “Freedom of Speech” and “Freedom of the Press” are really about – or why these freedoms are especially important today.
A survey last year by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that 37 percent of those surveyed could not name any of the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment, and about 75 percent don’t even know all three branches of government.
In Connecticut, there’s a law requiring that all high school students take at least one-half credit – a half year – of Civics education as a condition for graduation. So why don’t Connecticut students have a greater understanding of Freedom of Speech and Press?
The answer seems to be that they’re not being taught about the First Amendment in their Civics and other classes – or indeed at home.
To help remedy this situation, CFOG started a program two years ago to help inform high school students and others of their important First Amendment rights. The intent of the effort is to introduce high school students and others to the important intersecting rights of free speech, a free press, academic freedom and democratic governance. The program, conducted within a classroom setting, consists on an inter-active presentation by two-member teams, each team comprised of an experienced journalist and a lawyer expert in First Amendment law.
The program’s pilot was very well received by participating students and teachers. Nonetheless, only a few schools availed themselves of the program. As a result, CFOG asked the State Department of Education (DoE) to help get Social Studies teachers to include its First Amendment program in their Civics curriculum. Several school districts responded positively; most, however, failed to respond at all.
Steven Armstrong, a history instructor at Central Connecticut State university and the DoE’s Social Studies Consultant, suggested that CFOG prepare a webinar to explain to the teachers, and their supervisors, why they should incorporate our First Amendment program into their Civics curriculum. The webinar was developed by CFOG board members David Fink, Bernard Kavaler and Mitchell Pearlman. When completed it will be produced and made available to every school district in the state.
Mitchell W. Pearlman serves as secretary of CFOG’s Board of Directors.