Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. (The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution)
Students, faculty, staff and Kent community members came together on Oct. 3 to examine the state of the First Amendment with two renowned First Amendment scholars, David L. Hudson., Jr. of the Vanderbilt University School of Law and ombudsman of the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center and Gene Policinski, chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and First Amendment Center.
The Kiva event was cosponsored by CCI, the College of Arts & Sciences, the May 4 Visitor Center and the May 4 Task Force. It is part of the May 4 Visitor Center’s yearlong focus on the First Amendment.
Hudson and Policinski offered a frank assessment of the state of the First Amendment. National surveys show that no more than 6 percent of Americans can name all five First Amendment freedoms, and only 33 percent can name one of the rights it protects.
The First Amendment protects offensive, disagreeable speech. It protects hate-mongers, flag-burners, tobacco advertisers and controversial groups like the Westboro Baptist Church. “If you are committed to free speech, you must be prepared to hear ideas you don’t like,” Policinski said.
Both speakers emphasized the “free trade of ideas” – allowing different points of view to enter the marketplace and to let “the value of the idea determine its traction,” Policinski said. “We need to hear things that we don’t agree with, if only to be prepared to argue against such ideas.” Both also agreed that the remedy to offensive speech is more speech, not less: When we encounter speech we don’t like, we must counter it with positive speech and new ideas.
The First Amendment is not without challenges, however, and the speakers catalogued current threats, including attempts to overturn libel laws, criminalize flag-burning and place limitations on the free speech of public employees, including public school teachers.
While the First Amendment protects against governmental infringement of rights, the “greatest oppressors of speech can be private entities,” Hudson noted. This includes limitations on speech that private entities like Facebook and Google seek to impose. “Is Google so large and powerful that it should regulated as a public utility?” Hudson asked.
A clear message from the event was the need to know, understand, use and protect our First Amendment rights. As Policinski stated: “Freedoms not exercised are freedoms lost.”
Since his campaign to the White House, newly elected President Donald Trump continues to publically insult the press and threatens to weaken First Amendment protection all while serving as one of the most powerful public figures in America.
As frightening as this may sound, First Amendment advocates have learned throughout history that justice does tend to prevail; free expression eventually wins out. But until then, student journalists may face the same challenges as professionals with regards to what the plans are for restrictions on the Freedom of Information Act, says Professor Jonathan Peters of the University of Kansas in the Columbia Journalism Review. They may also have their credibility questioned as a result of President Trump labeling major news outlets as “fake news.” Despite the messy politics, student journalists at all levels do have significant First Amendment protections.
In response to all that has happened in these last few weeks in the new presidency, we, as scholastic journalism contributors and educators, must ensure we are doing our due diligence in reporting the news and not “alternative facts.” Today’s aspiring professional journalists (i.e. high school students, college students, etc.) are the future of this ever-changing industry, so we must advocate for them more than ever to ensure these fundamental rights are protected for the press and the American people.