Seigenthaler: First Amendment protects free society, not just free press

Monday, May 21, 2001

NEW YORK — Entertainers, journalists and other free-speech advocates rose to their feet May 18 to honor First Amendment Center founder John Seigenthaler as he received the Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Seigenthaler, who founded the center in 1991 at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., after spending more than 40 years in journalism and public service, humbly accepted the award, presented jointly by Hefner’s Playboy Foundation and the Creative Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group for the entertainment industry.

“To receive an award in Hugh Hefner’s name, to me, means a great deal,” Seigenthaler told Playboy CEO Christie Hefner, Creative Coalition President William Baldwin and members of an enthusiastic audience at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel that included First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams and actress Morgan Fairchild.

Seigenthaler lauded the founder of the Playboy empire “for all he has done to shatter the shackles of insidious, puritanical tyranny that have been part of the undercurrent in this country almost since the boat hit the rock” at Plymouth in 1620.

In his brief acceptance speech, he spoke about the importance of the First Amendment for journalists and nonjournalists alike.

“Those of us who are in journalism so often look upon those precious 45 words as if they belong to us alone,” he said. “We must remember that they belong … to the total society.

“We must remember that this amendment belongs to students. Those rights need to belong to gays in the military … to speak out about who they are. Those rights belong to those artists and authors whose work the government, of course, seeks to suppress.

“Those rights belong to those who march in protest peacefully and speak out, and whose words sometimes sting and sometimes offend. Those rights belong to those who burn flags.”

Ongoing First Amendment struggles include important issues of freedom of religion, as well, Seigenthaler said.

Religious struggles “go back to the beginning of this country,” he noted, and such rights are threatened today by some “Christian ministers who seek … to pass laws to affect religious rights of minorities” such as Jews, Muslims, and Native Americans.

Journalists, entertainers and anyone else concerned about dangers to the First Amendment, Seigenthaler added, must remain vigilant and do what they can to help those people whose rights are threatened.

“The struggle still goes on for all of them,” he said, “and so must it for all of us.”

Seigenthaler was honored for a lifetime of fighting for First Amendment ideals. In presenting the award, organizers noted his 43 years as a reporter, editor and publisher for The (Nashville) Tennessean, his former presidency of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and his leadership as founding editorial director of USA TODAY in 1982. He also worked extensively in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, during which time he served as an administrative assistant to U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.

However, organizers called his founding of the First Amendment Center his most important contribution to the defense of the First Amendment.

The center, now with additional offices in New York City and Arlington, Va., works to promote education of the First Amendment as an affiliate of The Freedom Forum and the Newseum.

Officially, Seigenthaler founded the center after retiring. However, Lucy Dalglish, one of the judges to award him the prize, said, “His idea of retirement is not exactly like mine.”

Dalglish, executive director of the nonprofit Reporters’ Committee for Freedom of the Press, said, “When you work for Seigenthaler and his colleagues, you learn to think big. You learn to think that anything is possible.”

Then she added, “The information and analysis that journalists provide enable the rest of us to participate more effectively as citizens in a democracy. Better than any journalist in America, John Seigenthaler is able to articulate how journalism shapes our society’s values and self-understanding.

“He is as stubborn, manipulative, cantankerous and kind, funny and lovable as anybody I have ever known. He is also the person who has taught me and dozens of other First Amendment advocates invaluable lessons about leadership and integrity.”

The other recipients of awards honored at the luncheon ceremony were:

  • Print Journalism: William M. Lawbaugh, associate professor of communications and faculty adviser to the student newspaper at Mount Saint Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, Md., who thwarted attempts by college officials to muzzle student journalists.
  • Education: Mary Dana, a teacher, and Nancy Zennie, a parent, co-founders of the group Muggles for Harry Potter, who rallied the public to oppose a ban on Harry Potter books in Zeeland, Mich., public schools.
  • Law: James Wheaton, senior counsel and co-founder of the Oakland-based First Amendment Project who, for almost a decade, has championed the rights of Californians against lawsuits designed to deter people from exercising their First Amendment rights.
  • Book Publishing: Michael Kent Curtis, constitutional scholar and professor of law at Wake Forest University School of Law in North Carolina, who wrote Free Speech, “The People’s Darling Privilege”: Struggles for Freedom of Expression in American History, which recounts America’s hard-fought battles for freedom of expression.
  • Arts and Entertainment: Penn and Teller, comedians and magicians who have threaded their work with serious messages to educate nontraditional audiences about the value of First Amendment protections.