Free expression at risk on college campuses, panelist tells Penn State students

Wednesday, October 4, 2000

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — While talk about free speech has increased on college campuses nationwide, so have threats to the First Amendment, an attorney and First Amendment advocate said yesterday.

“In many ways there are a lot more threats today and a disturbing lack of appreciation and support among the highest levels of college and university administrators for the whole notion of free expression and press freedom on campus,” said Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.

“There are places where there are very strong supporters (of free speech) and where free expression is healthy, but I think as an overall trend, [the First Amendment is] very much at risk today.”

Goodman joined several panelists for the discussion “Free Expression on Campus: Students and the First Amendment” yesterday as part of the First Amendment Festival at Penn State University. Sponsored by The Freedom Forum, the First Amendment Center, and the College of Communications at Penn State, the First Amendment Festival was designed to raise college students’ awareness of fundamental rights of free expression. About 1,100 Penn State students attended programs throughout the day.

Free speech has been a hotly discussed topic at Penn State in recent months. Last summer, five students were arrested after protesting the National Governors Association’s closed meetings on campus. The students hung a banner from the balcony of a building across the street from the NGA meeting site and were arrested after they refused to remove it.

Criminal charges were eventually dropped, but the Osmond 5, as the students have become known, now face disciplinary charges from the university. Several students attended yesterday’s events wearing T-shirts reading “F— Censorship,” in support of the Osmond 5.

“The university takes an interesting look at First Amendment rights of students on campus,” said panelist Clay Calvert when asked by one of the Osmond 5 whether Penn State students have First Amendment rights on campus. Calvert is an assistant professor of Communications and Law at the college and co-director of the Pennsylvania Center for the First Amendment.

“The reality is that Penn State can take action even if legally an individual is cleared (of criminal charges) off campus,” Calvert said. The university’s “system is very different and subject to very different standards and very different procedural rules than you would have off campus.”

Earlier in the day, the discussion centered not on campus speech, but on online speech during the panel “The First Amendment in Cyberspace: Napster, DeCss/DVD and New Technology.”

A survey conducted by the First Amendment Center found that 67% of Penn State students believe that making MP3 music files available online, through services like Napster, is a legally protected form of free expression.

Napster allows us to “create a world full of creators as opposed to simply a world full of consumers,” said panelist Robin Gross, an intellectual property attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Gross said that artists have a First Amendment right to make their music available on Napster. She also said that consumers have a First Amendment right to store music from CDs they purchase on Napster just as they have a right to make cassette copies of CDs.

But panelist Jorge Schement said there are limits to free speech.

“There have to be boundaries somewhere to free speech and First Amendment issues,” Schement said. “And when those boundaries are reached, it’s reasonable to ask ourselves what lies on the other side of that boundary.”

Schement, professor of telecommunications at Penn State and co-director of the Institute for Information Policy, said that in American society, we have to be concerned with privacy and property issues as well as First Amendment issues. But, he said, because the Internet is a fluid field, the boundaries between those issues are going to shift over time.

Veteran New York Times journalist and author Tom Wicker, who gave the keynote address for the festival, questioned how new technology—specifically the Internet—would change our view of First Amendment rights.

“Will technology as it advances endanger what we consider today to be civil liberties?” Wicker asked. “The Internet offers so many means of convenience to the general public. There are so many things you can tap into or click onto or download… . Will people be willing to give that convenience up for the sake of preserving what many of us would refer to as civil liberties or civil rights?

“Technology is changing the world we live in, the situation so much that we’re going to have to adapt to new means of protecting and advancing those values that we hold dear today.”

Wicker also believes that technology will drastically affect the future of print journalism. Good journalists will always be needed, he said, but online publications will eventually replace most print publications.

“Print journalism has a future but it’s not the kind of future that we know today,” he said.

But advances in technology will not change readers’ need for a good story, said Caesar Andrews, editor of Gannett News Service and one of the participants in the day’s last panel, “Freedom of the Press 2000: America’s Strained Relationship with the News Media.”

“People still have a need for stories to be told,” he said. “The role that the press plays — by whatever name, online or newspapers or broadcast or something in between or wireless or whatever the case may be — that essential role of taking information from here and conveying it to the public, to readers will still be there and someone will have to fill that role. And someone will have to do it at a level that includes high standards and credibility and that earns the trust of viewers and readers and so forth. And there’s no reason that that kind of role can’t be a direct extension of what we’re doing now.”

Andrews also urged the audience to remember that the First Amendment is for the public as well as the press.

“This whole business of the First Amendment is serious business indeed, as long as we (as journalists) embrace it with the understanding that we’re not the only ones who own it,” he said.

“I think part of that disconnect (that the news media experiences) with the public is that sometimes we sound like and act like it is ours (alone) when indeed it is not. We practice it and make use of it as others can.”