College media advisers take crash course in First Amendment

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — First Amendment Center ombudsman Paul McMasters looked out at the faces in the John Seigenthaler Center auditorium.

“How many of you think the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it affords the press?” he asked.

No hands went up.

“Well, that’s not the normal response,” he quipped.

But it was hardly a surprising answer for this group — more than 30 advisers to college media, many former journalists, gathered for last week’s 2005 College Media Advisers First Amendment Institute at the First Amendment Center in Nashville.

The June 15-17 conference, organized by the First Amendment Center, featured presentations from experts in all areas of media and First Amendment law and discussions with school officials and advisers.

Kicking off the conference was a presentation by McMasters called “The First Amendment and American Opinion: Balancing Our Rights Away,” in which the ombudsman warned that trying to balance First Amendment freedoms with other freedoms we value could lead to trouble.

He described a “constant assault on the five freedoms of the First Amendment,” including campaign-finance reform and censorship of offensive material, among other things.

“The Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2002 criminalizes speech,” he said, referring to restrictions on donations for political advertising leading up to an election. “If money isn’t speech, I don’t know what is. If we value political speech above all others, how can we suppress it when it matters most?”

McMasters lamented the self-censorship of news outlets today, asking, “Is life going to be put on tape-delay so we don’t get offended?”

He also noted that libel laws had already restricted First Amendment rights to some degree. Citing surveys and polls, he showed that the public does not fully understand the First Amendment, and the roomful of advisers shuddered when he said the Senate was two votes away from passing a constitutional amendment outlawing any form of flag-desecration or burning.

First Amendment Senior Scholar Charles Haynes, in a lively presentation on religious liberty, discussed the historical interpretations of the first 16 words of the First Amendment, those establishing religious freedom. He drew on the words of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and John Adams to show how the First Amendment could be interpreted to provide either total separation of church and state or government support of religion, just not support of one religion over another.

Overall, the First Amendment enables people in America to do what their conscience dictates, he concluded.

“You have to figure out a way to protect the conscience of people even when you think it’s wrong,” he said.

First Amendment Center Research Attorney David Hudson, who has written several books about such issues as the Bill of Rights and media law, gave a presentation about privacy and the First Amendment, outlining the evolution of privacy law and noting in particular the work of Samuel Warren and Louis
Brandeis in 1890 and Dean William Prosser’s work in 1960. Warren and Brandeis wrote “The Right to Privacy,” an article in the Harvard Law Review that formed the basis for most privacy law, and Prosser defined the four privacy torts, delineations of what constitutes a privacy violation, which largely remain in use today.

The presentation sparked lively discussion on a number of topics — from the difference between libel and false-light invasion of privacy to hypothetical situations involving a man with a telephoto lens snapping pictures of Paris Hilton dancing nude in her window.

Mike Hiestand, legal consultant for the Student Press Law Center, elicited strong feelings from the horde of advisers during his presentation about the First Amendment on campus. He cited numerous significant cases, including Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District and Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. Many in the room gasped at hearing that schools could sometimes censor student media on the basis of “legitimate pedagogical concerns,” such as poor quality and potential to cause a disruption.

But Hiestand said students and advisers could fight back by being careful, knowing the law and getting help from professionals.

Sam Chaltain, program coordinator for the First Amendment Schools program, told what the project was all about — educating the children of today to preserve freedoms for tomorrow — and urged the advisers to get involved with this free program.

RoseMary Wells, publications manager for Student Media at Georgia Tech, said she was particularly moved by Chaltain’s presentation.

“It makes me want to go back to my students and say, ‘Do you understand the power you have and the responsibility that comes with it?’” she said.

On June 17 John Seigenthaler, founder of the First Amendment Center and a well-respected journalist, fielded questions from the group of advisers, covering everything from newsroom diversity to reporter scandals to what he called a “tapeworm that has to be fed” — 24-hour news networks.

“There is something in the culture of the newsroom that has changed,” he said. “There are self-inflicted wounds now that can be corrected if we get to the kids (young journalists). We have to teach them the basic principles of accuracy, fairness and balance.”

As the journalist advisers filed out of the First Amendment Center lecture hall for the last time, they took with them their certificates of attendance and a reinvigoration they hoped to transport back to their respective campuses.

Clay Scott, adviser to the student newspaper The Settler and the student magazine The Pioneer at Volunteer State Community College in Gallatin, Tenn., said he planned to spend more time in class on the First Amendment because of the conference, particularly stressing “the necessity of informing students as well as the public about the need for a solid First Amendment.”

Amy Callahan, journalism coordinator and English instructor at Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill, Mass., found it comforting to speak with fellow advisers who shared many of her concerns and interests.

“Sometimes we feel like solitary souls on our own campus,” she said, “so it’s nice to know I can reach out to everyone here.”