The freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution are supposed to be at the heart of the American way of life. But in the face of threats to national security, fear too often erodes Americans’ commitment to the Constitution, journalist and educator Ken Paulson told students in the Frick Center during Elmhurst College’s First Amendment Day on November 19.
Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center, a nonprofit educational organization devoted to free-expression issues, delivered the keynote address for the event, which included exhibits, readings, presentations and panel discussions about the role of the First Amendment in American life. Paulson said that First Amendment Center surveys showed the percentage of Americans who believed that citizens enjoyed too many rights increased from around 20 percent to more than 50 percent in the immediate aftermath of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.
“When we’re afraid, we abandon our constitutional principles,” said Paulson, dean of the College of Mass Communication at Middle Tennessee State University and a former editor-in-chief of USA Today. Throughout American history, he said, constitutional rights have been most at risk in times of crisis, like the Civil War and the Cold War. “Fear bends our understanding of the Constitution.”
During his presentation, Paulson played game-show host, quizzing teams of students on their knowledge of the First Amendment. Students succeeded in naming the five freedoms enumerated in the amendment: freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to peacefully assemble, and the right to petition the government. But Paulson stumped them on a few questions, including one about which Beatles song Vice President Spiro Agnew objected to as promoting drug use. (It was “With a Little Help From My Friends.”)
“The more we know about our rights, the stronger we are as a nation,” Paulson said. “The contract between the government and the people is at the heart of who we are.”
Earlier this year, the First Amendment Center reported that more than one-third of the Americans it surveyed could name none of the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. Helping students understand the importance of the First Amendment was one of the aims of the event, said its organizers, Teri Walker, associate professor of political science, and Ron Wiginton, professor of English.
“The goal is to celebrate our constitutional freedoms and to inform students about them,” said Wiginton. “Students need to be aware of the issues.”
In a panel discussion following Paulson’s presentation, guest speakers addressed threats to First Amendment rights in schools and on college campuses.
“The courts have been vigilant gatekeepers for the First Amendment in recent years, but they have a blind spot when it comes to students,” said Frank LaMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C. “There is a gap between the rights of students and the rights of other citizens. It is impeding students’ ability to engage on matters of importance.” He pointed to so-called “free speech zones” on some private college campuses that restrict the expression of opinions and other advocacy activities to designated areas.
Ed Yohnka, director of communications of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that such restrictions have a chilling effect on free speech. “These restrictions make sure that the very people who make policy will be the last people who will hear anyone in a free-speech zone,” he said. “And that’s very intentional.”
But while free-speech rights may be threatened on some campuses, that has not been the case at Elmhurst, said Haleema Shah, editor-in-chief of Elmhurst’s award-winning student newspaper, The Leader.
“The College has been doing pretty well” in honoring students’ rights, she said. The paper published a theme issue focused on free expression in conjunction with First Amendment Day. In a column in that issue, Leader news editor Patrick Erwin praised the College’s administration for its commitment to free speech. “I’m sure that we’ve been about as welcome as a bad case of scabies to the administration at some points this year,” he wrote, “but to their great credit, we’ve been able to express our opinions.”
The First Amendment Day events were sponsored by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, the American Society of News Editors and Elmhurst College.