Press liberty helps make better nation, Seigenthaler says

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

By David Lias

VERMILLION, S.D. — You would expect a respected newsman like John Seigenthaler to spend an evening with participants in the sixth annual American Indian Journalism Institute in Vermillion speaking about press freedom.

But the liberty that allows written and broadcast information to flow freely in the United States was just one of many topics he discussed June 16 at the Al Neuharth Media Center.

The freedoms Americans enjoy because of the First Amendment, he noted, are easy to take for granted by journalists and others who greatly rely on them.

But this nation is constantly changing, Seigenthaler said, making the protections drafted two centuries ago in the First Amendment vital to modern American society.

Seigenthaler, 79, founder of the First Amendment Center, spent four decades as a reporter, editor and eventually publisher and CEO of The Tennessean in Nashville. In 1982, he became founding editorial director of USA TODAY.

“What has the First Amendment done to make us a better country in the 20th century? That's a legitimate question,” Seigenthaler said.

One of the reforms that a lively news media helped bring about occurred less than a century ago, he told a banquet audience of young women and men enrolled in this year's institute. It came as Woodrow Wilson's first term as president was ending and the nation was about to enter World War I.

“There was a hot election coming up, one that every citizen would want to participant in. But about half of you couldn't vote,” Seigenthaler said, scanning his audience of young journalists. “You're women. One-hundred-forty-five years after we won the Revolution, our independence, our liberty — half of our population couldn't vote.”

Women had begun a suffrage movement, hoping to gain voting rights. Though some hesitated to keep pushing for the vote with the nation at war, suffragist Alice Paul formed the National Suffrage Party to continue the fight.

“The new political party marched 8,000 people down the streets of Pennsylvania Avenue on the day before Woodrow Wilson was inaugurated, and they continued to picket the White House every day,” Seigenthaler said. “They put 800,000 petitions in hands of members of Congress.”

They also suffered — they were beaten, knocked down, spat upon, arrested and imprisoned, Seigenthaler said.

But a free press reported those abuses. “Finally, the conscience of the country was pricked in 1920, and finally we got a constitutional convention and an amendment giving women the right to vote.”

Seigenthaler said that action helped the population of the United States grow into a more caring society.

Eventually, images on television and on the front pages of newspapers showing black people in the 1950s and '60s being attacked as they demonstrated for civil rights, he said, helped change our nation once again for the better.

“Finally, finally, in 1965, after all of the suffering and the deaths, the people who exercised their rights eventually were able to convince a Congress to pass Lyndon Johnson's three civil rights bills in 1965.

“I submit to you that we are a better society for it,” Seigenthaler said.

David Lias is editor of the weekly Plain Talk newspaper in Vermillion and writes
for the Yankton daily newspaper.

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