College media advisers focus on teaching First Amendment

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

NASHVILLE — For today’s college media advisers, careful planning and creativity are essential for developing First Amendment awareness on their campuses — especially in light of last year’s State of the First Amendment survey results.

In 2006, 56% of Americans were able to name freedom of speech as one of the five rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. After speech, knowledge of the specified freedoms dropped significantly, with 17% able to name religion, 13% press, 11% assembly, and 3% able to name freedom to petition.

Teaching the First Amendment can be a large undertaking because so many people know so little about it going in, said First Amendment Center Vice President/Executive Director Gene Policinski.

Policinski and other presenters discussed First Amendment-related issues that affect college campuses at the 2007 Louis Ingelhart First Amendment Institute, co-sponsored by the College Media Advisers and the First Amendment Center. The institute, in its fourth year, was held June 14-15.

Thirteen advisers from across the country and one student editor listened as Policinski outlined goals for teaching the First Amendment and holding educational events. He said the first step in instructing students is to inform them of the five freedoms afforded citizens by the First Amendment. Instructors may then examine elements of the freedoms, study key Supreme Court cases related to each one, and hold a class period on scenarios involving threats to those freedoms.

Showing the First Amendment’s relevance is an important part of creating awareness, Policinski told the advisers, and he gave advice for holding successful events that celebrate, educate and emphasize the importance of the first freedoms in our everyday lives. He stressed how vital involving the entire campus is to these events.

“Press and speech belong to all,” he said. “Free speech is a campuswide value.”

Building upon campus events is one way to involve all students as well as guarantee attendance, Policinski advised in addition to giving tips for managing the size and content of the events. He also noted that local news media can often be a resource for funding, speakers and ideas. Inviting high school journalism classes and other groups, he said, can provide additional enthusiasm for the event.

After listening to ideas, advisers shared their own experiences and struggles with teaching and exercising First Amendment freedoms. Sam Martino, student media adviser at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, began a conversation about the common problem of determining when to grade student articles that are both for the newspaper and for a journalism course. Advisers discussed how to handle this situation while avoiding censorship of the student’s work.

The question led to more discussion of a hot topic among the advisers—censorship of college media.

James Tidwell, a lawyer and chair of the journalism department at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, led advisers through a presentation on court cases involving the First Amendment in colleges and universities.

Tidwell noted that understanding the difference between public and nonpublic forums is vital to avoiding censorship of campus media or media events. In a public forum, a place traditionally open for free expression, government officials have less authority to restrict speech. Any restrictions are subject to the highest form of judicial review, known as strict scrutiny. In a nonpublic forum, the government’s regulations on speech do not have to meet strict scrutiny, but must instead by reasonable and viewpoint-neutral.

“Having designation as a public forum is key to everything with student press rights,” Tidwell said.

After discussing court precedents concerning how the First Amendment is applied at schools, advisers worked in groups to devise plans for handling various scenarios that could occur on their campuses. Laura York, vice president for member services of College Media Advisers, talked to attendees about the resources for advocacy, lobbying and mediation CMA provides to its members when controversies occur.

Advisers agreed that they would return to their campuses well-informed.

“This has really added depth to my knowledge in this area. As an adviser, I want to be proactive and inform my students before there is an issue,” said Julia Clay, mass communications professor and student media adviser at Brenau University in Gainesville, Ga.

Lisa Perez, adviser to the student newspaper at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, also said the conference was helpful to her in her other role as director of the university center and student activities.

“We have been encountering protests from political and other organizations recently on campus, and this has helped me to build up confidence in my reasonings on decisions I have made. Lots of things mentioned here have reaffirmed policies we have. I’ve learned a lot,” she said.

After receiving toolkits with suggestions and tips and touring the First Amendment Center’s “Protest” exhibit, advisers graduated from the institute in a short program with encouragement to be First Amendment advocates.

“Being aware of First Amendment rights trains you to be a good citizen, not just a good journalist,” Policinski said.

Courtney Holliday is a junior majoring in economics and public policy at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

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