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Many students willing to give government control of press

The Oregonian | March 15 2005

Lindsey Pendergrass trusts the government more than she trusts the press.

That's why she doesn't believe that newspapers should be allowed to publish everything without government approval.

"The press just wants to print something that people will buy," she says. "The government has to be true to the public."

The Gresham High freshman is not uncommon in her view of the roles of the press and the government. About half the students who responded to a national survey about the First Amendment disagreed that newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of a story. When The Oregonian mounted an informal survey of readers, about one-third of students disagreed with full freedom of the press -- twice the rate of adult readers.

The findings are in stark contrast to the goals of Sunshine Week this week, when journalists are trying to raise awareness about the public's right to access government information. A significant number of students actually would let government control the content of newspapers.

Felicia Taylor, a senior at Gresham High School, comes from a family with military roots and is angered when critics of the U.S. efforts get highlighted in the press. "I know and recognize that the press does many great things, but at this current time, the bad outweighs the good," she writes. "I believe that the government should be able to have a say in what does and does not get published in newspapers, magazines, on TV. The government should be reinforcing support of people who work for and defend this country, instead of the people who try to bring it down."

I respect Taylor and Pendergrass for thinking through the issue. Yet their widely shared views frighten me, and worry other students and teachers.

"When only 50 percent of high schoolers think that newspapers should be able to publish without government restriction, how hard would it be to start censoring stories?" asks Riley Peck, co-editor of the Cardinal Times at Lincoln High School. "The media might raise hell, but what's going to happen when half the country just doesn't care?"

Leah Kirschner, a teacher at Grant High School, was appalled by the views of students. That's why she first made her students take the survey. Then, she required them to write essays about how those rights are disregarded in George Orwell's "1984."

The national study sponsored by the Knight Foundation also found that a key to students' understanding and appreciating the First Amendment is whether they are exposed to media classes or newspaper experiences. The more opportunities, the greater support of the First Amendment. Yet the survey, which also interviewed teachers and administrators, found that many schools are dropping newspapers and other media classes, particularly because of budget constraints.

Reporter David Austin of The Oregonian has been working for six years to expand journalism opportunities for students, particularly those of color. Austin has led an effort to make a summer journalism program for minority students sponsored by The Oregonian and run by the newspaper and the University of Oregon a year-round opportunity.

He also has worked locally on an effort with the American Society of Newspaper Editors to revive high school newspaper programs. Austin, with the help of other newspaper staff members, has worked to try to revive newspapers at Parkrose, Marshall, Roosevelt and Madison high schools.

"It has been life-changing," says Jessica Ventura, a senior at Madison.

She casually agreed to try working on the newspaper, named The Constitution, because she likes to write. It turns out Ventura loves it. She hopes next year to go to University of Oregon, where she probably will major in journalism.

Ventura says she never gave much thought to why the freedoms of speech and the press are so important, and now she can't imagine those rights being taken away. As an immigrant from El Salvador, she never thought she and other Latinos would get opportunities to express themselves.

Today, she not only feels empowered, but as the newspaper's Living editor, she's given voice to other students who otherwise might not have been heard.

Those lessons are rays of sunshine all students should enjoy.

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