Alabama State First Amendment Festival takes civil rights angle

Friday, February 16, 2001

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Knowing where you’ve been is key to knowing where you are and where you’re going, a veteran civil rights activist said yesterday.

“Unless you know something about the past, unless you know something about history, you cannot really appreciate where you are today. And definitely you cannot focus [on] what’s [ahead] of you,” said Johnnie Carr, president of the Montgomery Improvement Association since 1967.

Carr shared her memories of Montgomery during the civil rights era for a panel discussion, “New York Times Co. v. Sullivan: A First Amendment Landmark,” as part of the First Amendment Festival at Alabama State University.

Sponsored by The Freedom Forum, the First Amendment Center and Alabama State’s Department of Communications, the First Amendment Festival was designed to raise college students’ awareness of fundamental rights of free expression. About 275 students, faculty and community members attended programs throughout the day.

The 1964 Sullivan case established free-press protection for statements made about public officials, even if the statements are false, as long as they are not knowingly and maliciously made.

At the center of the case, which grew out of the civil rights protests in Montgomery, was an advertisement the Times published in 1960 that included false allegations of police abuse against student demonstrators from Alabama State.

Montgomery Police Commissioner L.B. Sullivan called the ad “false and defamatory” and sued the Times and four Montgomery ministers whose names appeared among the 64 sponsors of the ad. Sullivan asked for $500,000 in damages.

A state trial court and the state Supreme Court ruled in Sullivan’s favor.

Charles S. Conley, the first black judge in Alabama and one of the attorneys who argued the case on behalf of the ministers before the state Supreme Court, said the atmosphere in Alabama courts at the time was “difficult” and “unpleasant” for blacks.

He described one case in which the judge said the U.S. Constitution had no application in his court. The judge said the law that would apply instead was “the white man’s justice,” Conley said.

In 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Sullivan rulings, saying the ad was protected by the First Amendment.

Roland Nachman, who represented Sullivan, said he was surprised by the ruling.

“I said when I left for Washington that the only way I could lose the case [would be if] the Supreme Court changed the law of libel, and that’s exactly what the Supreme Court did,” Nachman said.

Chuck Stone, a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said the case represented an important convergence of the civil rights movement and the First Amendment.

“It is a civil rights case, but it is also a First Amendment case — you can’t divorce the [two],” Stone said. It was a “historic case because of Martin Luther King and the demonstrations (and) the Selma-to-Montgomery march — all those things are connected.”

But Montgomery resident and journalist Robert B. Ingram said the case had little to do with the struggle for equal rights for blacks.

“It’s a First Amendment case that happens to involve the civil rights movement,” Ingram said. “Someone (recently) asked me what does Times v. Sullivan have to do with Black History Month, and I said ‘Not a thing.’ ”

Earlier in the day, Ken Paulson, executive director of the First Amendment Center, and John Seigenthaler, the center’s founder, gave an animated and interactive presentation on “Inside the First Amendment.”

Seigenthaler, who was attacked in Montgomery in 1961 while accompanying the Freedom Riders as a representative of the U.S. Justice Department, later gave the day’s keynote address.

Seigenthaler began his address by emphasizing that the civil rights movement was the only movement of its kind that utilized all five freedoms of the First Amendment.

“The suffragettes exercised some of the freedoms. Some of the labor movement exercised some of the freedoms,” he said. “There’ve been social movements that have relied on the First Amendment, but this was the first movement that really embraced all 45 words of the amendment.”

Seigenthaler added that the news media — especially television — played an integral role in advancing the movement.

“I like to think of the press as a mirror,” he said. “What that mirror reflected suddenly was what everybody in the South had been blind to — the injustice of the system, the corruption of the system. … And once you saw that, a number of people knew they were part of it, and it helped change them.”

Seigenthaler ended his address by urging the crowd to use their First Amendment rights to combat speech they don’t like rather than censor it.

“I think our society is better off, rather than having the government punish you with fines or a plaintiff punish you with a fine or somebody try to put you in jail for what you say or what you’re saying … if we use our own First Amendment rights to speak out against art we don’t like or music we don’t like or political speech we don’t like,” he said.

“Use good speech to defeat bad speech,” he urged.

The day concluded with a screening of the documentary film, “The First Freedom,” produced for the Newseum by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Charles Guggenheim.

Alabama State student Darrius Herring, a senior public relations major, said the festival, especially the panel on the Sullivan case, was enlightening.

“It’s a great insight on not only journalism, but on the civil rights movement,” Herring said. “It’s a wonderful thing. … You get to learn about something historic so in depth.”

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