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The First Amendment in Public Schools

A comprehensive survey of how administrators and teachers view the rights and responsibilities of the First Amendment


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Executive Summary

For much of this nation's history, public schools have been charged with the vital mission of transmitting the principles and ideals of the First Amendment to each succeeding generation of Americans. But given the ignorance and contention now surrounding the First Amendment in American public life, how well do today's schools teach and apply our first freedoms as they educate for citizenship in the 21st century?

In order to provide a starting point for answering this question, the First Amendment Center and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development conducted a comprehensive survey designed to discover what public-school teachers and administrators think about the role of the First Amendment in schools. The study was commissioned to coincide with the launch of a multi-year partnership between ASCD and the First Amendment Center designed to transform how all schools model and teach the rights and responsibilities that flow from the First Amendment.1

The findings of the survey suggest that educators support the First Amendment in principle, but are wary of applying it in schools. Given the important interest educators have in discipline and safety, it isn't surprising that many teachers and administrators are reluctant to risk a robust application of First Amendment freedoms by students during the school day. Most educators think that students already have enough freedom, and that restrictions on freedom in the school are necessary. Many support filtering the Internet, censoring T-shirts, disallowing student distribution of political or religious material, and prior review of school newspapers.

In spite of this willingness to restrict student rights, most educators think that their schools currently do a good job of teaching students about the First Amendment and promoting First Amendment principles through school activities and practices. This self-evaluation is in sharp contrast to the general public's view that schools aren't doing enough to educate students about the First Amendment.

Here are some of the key findings from the study:

  • Although educators demonstrate greater knowledge of First Amendment freedoms than the general public, roughly one in five can not recall any of the five freedoms. While three out of four educators recall freedom of speech, fewer than one in four can identify each of the other freedoms.

  • While a majority of educators (63%) rate American schools "excellent" or "good" regarding First Amendment education, just 28% of the public give the same rating.

  • While nearly all educators (97%) support students' rights to express religious views in classroom discussions, only about 40% support the rights of students to distribute religious materials at school. There is slightly greater, though not quite majority, support for students' right to distribute political materials (48%), even though the courts have generally upheld the rights of students to distribute religious and political literature in public schools. At the same time, solid majorities (70% or higher) of educators support students' rights to organize political, religious and gay/lesbian clubs.

  • Educators are strongly opposed to permitting students to exercise First Amendment rights if the issue involves potentially offensive material or behavior. There is virtually no support for students' rights to post potentially offensive material on school-based personal Web sites, or to wear T-shirts with messages that some might find offensive. Nine out of ten also favor the installation of blocking software on school computers to prevent student access to potentially inappropriate or offensive Web sites.

  • By more than a two to one margin, educators disagree that "students at public high schools should be allowed to report on controversial issues in their student newspapers without approval of school authorities."

  • Despite their concerns about specific types of student expression, educators overwhelmingly support student involvement in making decisions about school rules, a practice that would provide an important opportunity for the application of First Amendment principles in the schools.

The survey is based on telephone interviews with 1,802 public school teachers and administrators, conducted Jan. 16-31, 2001, by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut. A total of 902 interviews were conducted with teachers — 300 at the elementary level, 301 at the middle/junior high school level and 301 at the high school level. Nine hundred interviews were conducted with administrators — 300 at each of the three school levels.

Some striking contrasts are found in the survey between the attitudes of the public and educators on the subject of school prayer:

  • While the general public strongly supports the notion of allowing educators to lead prayers in schools, most teachers and administrators do not. Nearly two-thirds of the public (65%) agree that "teachers or other public school officials should be allowed to lead prayers in school," while just 38 percent of teachers and 29 percent of administrators feel this way.

  • Although both teachers and administrators are more likely to support student-led prayer than educator-led prayer, a majority of both groups (53% and 58% respectively) disagree that "students should be allowed to lead prayers over the public address system at public school-sponsored events." Again, the public is far more likely than educators to support this type of school prayer — 64% of the public agree that this should be allowed, as compared to 43% of the educators.

Finally, it appears that federal government guidelines designed to explain to educators how to deal with issues of religious expression and distributed by the Clinton administration to all schools in 2000 failed to reach much of their intended audience. While 42 percent of administrators are at least "somewhat familiar" with the guidelines, only 15 percent of teachers say the same.

The overall findings of the survey suggest that educators aren't convinced that students can exercise their rights with responsibility. They want students to learn about freedom, but not necessarily to practice freedom — at least not in the school setting. This may be due, in part at least, to unfamiliarity among educators about the five freedoms and an uncertainty about how to teach freedom with responsibility in today's permissive society.

These findings pose two key challenges to schools and communities. First, there is an urgent need to reform education about the First Amendment for school officials as well as for students. And second, models must be created to demonstrate that democratic schools framed by First Amendment principles are not risky ventures; they are places of civic responsibility and enhanced learned.

The guiding principles of the First Amendment stand at the heart of our democracy and at the foundation of citizenship in a diverse society. If we are to sustain this extraordinary experiment in liberty, we must resist our fear of freedom — especially among the young — and work to ensure that our schools become laboratories for democracy.

Survey Methodology

The First Amendment Center commissioned the Center for Survey Research and Analysis (CSRA) at the University of Connecticut to conduct a survey of public school teachers and administrators regarding the First Amendment in the schools. Two separate studies, one with public school teachers and one with public school administrators were conducted by telephone between January 16th and January 31st, 2001.

The sample for this project was purchased from Survey Sampling, Inc. (SSI) of Fairfield, Connecticut. The SSI database collects teacher names from a variety of sources including association membership, subscription and catalog purchases. The total database contains approximately 1 million teachers and administrators with home addresses and telephone numbers.

Because the sample was drawn from a database that did not include the names and contact information for all public school teachers and administrators in the United States, the sample drawn from this database represents a convenience sample. As such, the results obtained may not be representative of the opinions of all public school teachers and administrators in the country. An important assumption of this study was that, with respect to the topic of this survey, the opinions of teachers and administrators included in this database would not differ in a systematic way from the opinions of those who were not included in the database.

The sample was divided into six strata according to whether the selected individual was an administrator or a teacher, and then according to the grade of school taught or administered. All respondents were then administered screening questions to verify whether they were a public school administrator or teacher, and whether their school was an Elementary School, a Middle or Junior High School, or High School. Respondent answers to the screening questions, as opposed to the sample stratum, determined the analytic category into which the respondent was placed for purposes of this study.

Interviews were conducted at CSRA's interviewing facility in Storrs, Connecticut, using a Computer Assisted Telephone Interviewing (CATI) system. All CSRA surveys are conducted by professional survey interviewers who are trained in standard protocols for administering survey instruments. Interviewers are extensively monitored by Center staff to insure CSRA standards for quality are continually met.

A total of 1802 interviews were conducted, 900 with public school administrators and 902 with public school teachers. For the survey of administrators, 300 interviews were conducted with administrators at each of the school levels (elementary, middle/junior high and high school). For the survey of teachers, 300 interviews were conducted with teachers at the elementary level, 301 with teachers at the middle/junior high school level and 301 with teachers at the high school level.

Since this study was conducted using a convenience sample, it is not technically possible to calculate a margin of sampling error for the results. Had this been a true random sample of all public school teachers and administrators, the sampling error for a sample of approximately 900 people would have been 3 percentage points at the 95% level of confidence. In other words, the chances are less than one in twenty that the results from a survey of this many people would differ by more than 3 percentage points in either direction from the results that would have been obtained if all public school teachers and administrators had been interviewed. For sub-groups, the sampling error would be larger. For example, the sampling error for a sample of approximately 300 people (the sample size for each school level) would be 6 percentage points at the 95% level of confidence. CSRA also attempted to minimize other possible sources of error.

1Comparisons of educators' opinion with those of the public are based on the annual State of the First Amendment survey released by the First Amendment Center in July 2000.