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New research shows administrators know more about the First Amendment
but don’t fully grasp it

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A researcher at Hiram College in Hiram, Ohio, surveyed public high school administrators about their First Amendment knowledge this fall and discovered that administrators may, in fact, know more than they think about the First Amendment.

However, Audrey Wagstaff Cunningham, assistant professor, said when tested on their knowledge of specific attributes, the majority did not have sufficient knowledge about the reporting of minors, nor did they understand the limits of administrative control over seemingly “inappropriate” content produced in a student publication.

Finally, many of the administrators surveyed did not recognize the public forum status available to student publications. This suggests that administrators may not fully understand the free speech rights of students as defined in major cases like Tinker v. Des Moines.

Likewise, if they know about Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, they may apply their knowledge incorrectly. In addition, administrators who are less knowledgeable about the First Amendment as it pertains to students are also more likely to try to censor students’ work.

“Many scholars and educators interested in scholastic journalism,” Cunningham writes in the paper, “have suggested that the censorship problem begins in schools, and is fueled by poor understanding of First Amendment freedoms (Student Press Law Center, 2006). This study, despite several findings being statistically insignificant, is meant to help illuminate the path to better understanding the administrative censorship phenomenon.”

You can download Wagstaff-Cunningham’s paper, which was accepted by JEA’s Certification Commission as her MJE requirement, here.

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