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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, March 15, 2007

Students’ words a beacon in dark times

The hour before dawn often seems the darkest.

This is Sunshine Week, meant to highlight the public’s access to government records and meetings. To underscore the importance of the week, the New York Press Association, of which The Enterprise is a member, sponsored an essay contest for high-school juniors and seniors to foster knowledge and understanding of the First Amendment.

The contest was created in response to a 2005 survey that showed the majority of American high-school students could not name the five freedoms protected by the First Amendment.

That was a dark hour indeed.

The million-dollar study, conducted by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, showed that 49 percent, nearly half, thought government should be able to approve news stories before they are printed.

The national examples of the need for a free press are obvious: What would have happened if Richard Nixon could have vetted the Washington Post stories on Watergate" Along with the big news, though, are the countless stories that papers like ours print every week. Our pages would look very different if local school boards, planning boards, zoning boards, town boards, or village boards could vet the stories we publish about them.

We have a responsibility to inform the public as thoroughly as possible. Telling all sides of a story, we don’t serve as a megaphone for any government, and that makes a difference in everyday lives.

When told the full text of the First Amendment, a third of America’s high-school students said it went "too far" in the rights it guarantees. More than a third said they take the protections for granted and more than a third had no opinion about it.

No opinion on the original amendment to our Constitution that forms the cornerstone of our democracy. Taking for granted the freedoms of religion, speech, and the press, and the right to assemble and to petition the government.

Citizens in a democracy have to be informed if a government of the people, by the people, and for the people is going to prosper.

About half of the students surveyed said that government can restrict material on the Internet, and about three-quarters said it is illegal to burn a flag. Neither is true.

First Amendment values aren’t being passed from one generation to the next. The study showed that 97 percent of teachers and 99 percent of school principals said people should be allowed to express unpopular views, but only 83 percent of students thought so.

"High school students’ attitudes about the First Amendment are important because each generation of citizens helps define what freedom means in our society," the study says.

The student essays — nine were submitted to our newspaper as part of the press association contest — give us a ray of hope following our hour of darkness.

"The First Amendment plays no part in the lives of most Americans, even though it should have a very crucial role," writes Guilderland High School junior Karl Barber.

Bart Comegys, a Schalmont junior, writes of the First Amendment rights, "All these rights must be used wisely and, above all, appreciated."

"My school is extremely fortunate," writes Guilderland senior Sean Balogh. "We have the ability to broadcast our own news show throughout the school""

"The phenomenon known as ‘blogging’ broadly utilizes the First Amendment to discuss current issues, such as the war in Iraq, stem cell research, and religious faith," writes Guilderland junior Yifan Chen. "Ordinary citizens, along with prominent politicians, have established their own ‘blogs’ to convey their stances on divisive issues and to provide a more intimate connection with their peers and supporters."

"There have been many changes in America over the past 200 years, and many of them are the result of our ability to speak freely," writes Guilderland junior Katie Matthews. "Without that right, women still wouldn’t be able to vote. African Americans would still be treated as second-class citizens. Laborers would still be working long hours in poor conditions for low wages. We might still be fighting a war in Vietnam."

"There have been small battles that define communities, businesses, and the individuals who make up America’s society, each one searching and pushing for their own unique truths and sense of being," writes Anita Vukovic, a Guilderland junior. She finds the common thread is "the American people’s right, liberty, and ability to voice their opinions without fear or consequence."

Wangzhong Sheng, a Guilderland junior, imagines the war in Iraq without the First Amendment. "First of all, the Muslim community would immediately be shunned"," he writes. "Secondly, anyone speaking out against the war would immediately be arrested""

"Our right to freedom of speech is what seals the American identity," writes Guilderland junior Elizabeth Barber. "It is what allows America to be a great melting pot of ideas, opinions, and values."

Our winning essay was written by Guilderland junior Katherine Haas. We are printing it here, in its entirety, for our readers to appreciate. Our contest was judged by Andrew Schotz, a one-time Enterprise reporter and editor who has moved on to cover Maryland’s capital for a daily newspaper there, continuing his abiding interest in First Amendment rights.

He chose Haas’s essay, he said, because "she best explored and described the tension inherent in protecting objectionable speech." Schotz went on, "Her examples were real and easy to relate to. Her writing was strong and clear. And her conclusion matches what First Amendment champions have said for generations: The best response to distasteful speech is more speech."

Haas, whose favorite subjects are English and history, told us she has always been interested in civil liberties and free speech. She once wanted to be a novelist, she said, and has spent a lot of time and effort on her writing, taking courses through the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth.

She has recently switched her career goals, though, and would like to one day work for the American Civil Liberties Union.

"I’m a big pacifist," she said. Last month, she marched in Washington, D.C. against the war in Iraq. This week, she’ll be returning for a rally at the Pentagon.

Katherine Haas is, in short, using the rights to free speech and peaceable assembly guaranteed by the First Amendment.

She remembers attending an anti-war protest in Albany with maybe 50 people while the one last month in D.C. drew 100,000.

As she eloquently writes, "When we are proven correct, we will know it was not because we silenced the opposition or forced anyone to agree, but because we said what we believed and people listened."

Heartened by the care and wisdom of our nine essayists, we have hope that a new day is dawning.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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