Students, officials flub 1st Amendment

By LOU MARANO  |  Nov. 20, 2003 at 10:51 AM
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WASHINGTON, Nov. 20 (UPI) -- Undergraduates and college administrators appear uninformed about the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, surveys commissioned by a campus civil liberties group show.

One out of every four undergraduates was unable to mention any freedoms protected by the First Amendment. And when asked to name any First Amendment right, only 21 percent of the interviewed administrators named the very first right guaranteed by the Bill of Rights -- freedom of religion -- and a full 11 percent admitted that they did not know any of the specific rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.

The two surveys were commissioned by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a Philadelphia-based watchdog group founded in 1999 by University of Pennsylvania historian Alan Charles Kors and Boston civil rights attorney Harvey A. Silverglate.

"If the American experiment in liberty is to survive, citizens must both keep alive and cherish the free exchange of ideas, values, and convictions," Kors said. "These survey results are disheartening, but they unfortunately are not surprising. Through FIRE's experience with aiding thousands of students on campuses across the country, we have learned that freedom of speech and freedom to worship are undergoing a frightening and powerful assault."

The surveys, conducted by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut, asked open-ended and fact-based situational questions of 1037 students and 306 administrators from hundreds of public and private colleges and universities across the country.

Only 6 percent of administrators and 2 percent of students correctly named freedom of religion as the freedom that the First Amendment addresses before all others.

Students and administrators were also asked whether, under current U.S. law, a religious student group that believes gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender behavior is against Biblical injunctions is allowed to exclude those who practice such behavior. As a consequence of the U.S. Supreme Court case of Boy Scouts of America v. Dale (2000), a public university may not use anti-discrimination policies to dictate the leadership or membership of religious groups, but more than 80 percent of administrators were ignorant of the law. Students were more informed on this issue, with 40 percent drawing the correct legal conclusion.

Other survey results include:

• 24 percent of administrators believe they have the legal right to prohibit a student religious group from actively trying to convert students to its religion.

• 49 percent of administrators at private universities and 34 percent of administrators at public universities report that students at their institutions must undergo mandatory non-curricular programs, "the goal of which is to lead them to value all sexual preferences and to recognize the relativity of these values compared to the values of their upbringing."

"Our colleges and universities continue to deny students rights that are respected in nearly every other venue of our free society," Kors said. "We need to protect the rights of inward belief and outward expression, and we need to educate students and administrators about the principles of our First Amendment -- principles that reflect the very spirit of liberty. To this end, FIRE has published a Guide to Religious Liberty on Campus, available at"

David A. French, the guide's author, is a member of FIRE's Legal Network. "This survey confirms what students of faith have long perceived --that their fellow students and the administrators either misunderstand or minimize the extent and importance of their First Amendment rights," French said. "It is ironic that administrators who are so eager to encourage 'tolerance' and 'diversity' know so little about the fundamental freedoms that make true diversity and tolerance possible."

The full results of both surveys as well as FIRE's digest and center's independent analysis are available on the FIRE website. The surveys were funded by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. The margin of error in the student survey is ±2.8 percent and in the administrator survey ±5.6 percent.

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