First Amendment Center celebrates 20 years

Friday, December 9, 2011

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — When he founded the First Amendment Center 20 years ago, John Seigenthaler thought the center would focus mainly on freedom of the press. That’s an understandable approach for a veteran journalist and editor. But he soon realized that all five First Amendment freedoms not only matter but also work together to keep a democratic republic free.

“I had no idea that we were on the cutting edge of an issue that was going to have so much meaning,” Seigenthaler said last night at a celebration of the center’s 20th anniversary. (See videos at bottom.)

In an interview with Ken Paulson, First Amendment Center president, Seigenthaler said his main concern in seeking to create a center for the study and understanding of the amendment arose from polls showing deep public distrust of the news media.

“Public support for the media was waning,” he said. Soon, however, his view of the First Amendment expanded.

“The First Amendment is in the news,” he told Paulson in the Seigenthaler Center’s lecture hall on the Vanderbilt University campus before an audience of invited guests. “Part of [the First Amendment] has to do with the way we worship. Part of it has to do with our arts and culture. Part of it has to do with people demonstrating … .

“At 70, I was not too old to learn. At 84, I am still learning about the importance of those 45 words about which I once had a very narrow view,” Seigenthaler added.

After a short retrospective video highlighting a number of First Amendment Center programs and events, Paulson asked Seigenthaler to list his three favorite initiatives.

First was a program with the American Press Institute that taught First Amendment basics to thousands of journalists. Seigenthaler and Paulson teamed up for an interactive exploration of the First Amendment to test and expand journalists’ grasp of its core freedoms. The two were honored with API Lifetime Service Awards.

In many cases, Seigenthaler said, “the people who benefit from freedom of the press have little to no idea where that freedom came from, what it was about, (or) how lucky they were to have it to protect them.”

Through the API program, Seigenthaler said, journalists “came to understand, as I did, that [the First Amendment] affects so many other people, how we worship, how we express ourselves, how we protest against government.”

“Freedom Sings” was Seigenthaler’s second favorite. This continuing series of musical performances and narration about songs that have been banned or censored, or have called for social change has entertained and educated collegiate and professional audiences for more than 10 years.

“Music has been controversial throughout our national life,” Seigenthaler said. “Freedom Sings,” as Paulson put it, is “matching First Amendment principles to rock ’n’ roll.”

No. 3 on Seigenthaler’s list: Justice and Journalism, led by Gene Policinski, First Amendment Center senior vice president and executive director. This program, also running for more than 10 years, brings federal judges together with journalists to work toward greater mutual understanding — and, by finding better ways to communicate to the public, greater understanding in society of how the judiciary works.

Federal judges “have become aware of their need to communicate with the public,” Seigenthaler said. “When Justice and Journalism started, there was great suspicion on the part of judges and almost fear on the part of many journalists.”

Seigenthaler and Paulson reflected on special events through the years with such celebrities as Johnny and June Cash, Robert Redford, Harry Belafonte, George Carlin, Dick Gregory and John Kay of Steppenwolf.

They also saluted the accomplishments of Charles Haynes and the First Amendment Center religious-liberty programs he directs at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. Achievements of that ongoing effort include federal guidelines to help public schools understand that under the First Amendment religion is not banned from school, but neither can it be imposed.

“There are threats today (to the First Amendment freedoms) as there always have been,” Seigenthaler observed toward the end of the interview. He noted the reach of the First Amendment Center website. “(We’re) helping people to understand.”

He added, “We’re going to be in business, I hope, for a long time and continue to make inroads.”

Jim Duff, president and chief executive officer of the Freedom Forum, which supports the First Amendment Center and operates the Newseum, closed the evening by noting that the Newseum building on Pennsylvania Avenue features a mammoth wall engraved in Tennessee marble with the 45 words of the First Amendment.

“It’s an ongoing process to keep those freedoms. How do we do it? It’s our view at the Freedom Forum and the First Amendment Center—and it’s one, I think, we share really with the Founders of our country—that it’s an educated citizenry that is the best way to preserve … the freedoms that we do have,” Duff said, adding that that such education is central to the First Amendment Center’s mission.

The First Amendment Center, founded Dec. 15, 1991, on the 200th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights, serves as a forum for the study and exploration of free-expression issues, including freedom of speech, of the press and of religion, and the rights to assemble and to petition the government.

Video: 20th anniversary program, Dec. 8, 2011:

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Video: 20-year highlights of the First Amendment Center:

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