Speaker stresses First Amendment By: Randy Dockendorf
Yankton Press & Dakotan The United States is at war and faces threats from both inside and outside the nation. The press criticizes the president, who in turn attacks what he calls a liberal media undermining national security. President George W. Bush after 9/11 and during the Iraqi war? No, George Washington during the nationâ�?�?s infancy 200 years ago. And for that matter, Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, followed by other administrations. The United States has faced constant tension between the government on the one hand and media and citizens on the other, said renowned journalist John Seigenthaler. But the First Amendment is truly put to the test during war and other times of strife, Seigenthaler told Native students gathered Wednesday for the American Indian Journalism Institute (AIJI). The eighth annual institute is being held this month at the University of South Dakota. â�?�?President Bush said, after 9/11, that â�?�?Freedom and fear are at war,â�?�?â�? Seigenthaler said. â�?�?When we are afraid as a nation, we do things we would not otherwise do.â�? Seigenthaler, who has also remained active in civil rights during his lifetime, founded the First Amendment Center in 1991. For 90 minutes Wednesday night, he quizzed AIJI students and staff on the First Amendment. While he gave out prizes for correct answers, the studentsâ�?�? greatest reward may have been a greater understanding of the freedoms that make the United States a strong nation. â�?�?People think of it primarily as protection for journalists,â�? he said. â�?�?But it has dawned on me, finally, that it belongs to everyone.â�? Unfortunately, many people canâ�?�?t name the freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment, Seigenthaler said. In fact, many people donâ�?�?t even know how many freedoms are listed. For the record, the five freedoms are religion, speech, press, assembly and petitioning the government for a redress of grievances. Surveys consistently show 2 out of 100 respondents can recite all five freedoms, Seigenthaler said. â�?�?The number is never higher than 3 percent, and sometimes itâ�?�?s 1 percent,â�? he said. Why is the number so low? One AIJI student offered the cutback in social studies and civics education as one reason. Another student said too many people take the First Amendment for granted and donâ�?�?t bother to learn it. Seigenthaler noted an irony. â�?�?Why can so many people remember the pledge to the flag, but so few donâ�?�?t remember the First Amendment? Because we donâ�?�?t teach it,â�? he said. As part of his presentation, Seigenthaler showed pages from a textbook used from the mid-1950s through the 1970s. The book mistakenly listed â�?�?freedom of enterpriseâ�? as part of the First Amendment, representing the push for free enterprise and a strong economy, he said. Another textbook listed only four rights, while one of the constitutional rights was omitted from a study card given to immigrants seeking citizenship, he said. Many historic cases have protected or defined the First Amendment, Seigenthaler said. New technology has forced the courts to determine what is protected by constitutional rights, he said. â�?�?The freedom of speech and press is pretty broad. You can say almost anything as long as itâ�?�?s not defamatory,â�? he said. â�?�?Now, the on-line information service providers are protected against laws of defamation.â�? The First Amendment has faced many tests throughout history, Seigenthaler said. â�?�?Who was the first president to decline another term, in part, because of ugly press coverage?â�? Seigenthaler asked. Again, the answer was George Washington. The nation has seen many efforts to curb freedom of speech and the press, particularly criticism of public officials during wartime, Seigenthaler said. The Sedition Act of 1798 was used to imprison and fine not only editors but also ministers who criticized from the pulpit and even a drunk who uttered a critical remark of the president, he said. The law was even used against the editor of a German-language newspaper, Seigenthaler said. The First Amendment received challenges during the Civil War, when Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and 38,000 persons were imprisoned with no judicial proceedings and review, Seigenthaler said. During World War II, interment camps were set up for 100,000 U.S. citizens of Japanese descent, who were forced to sell their homes and undergo incarceration, he said. The controversy continues today, with the passage of the Patriot Act following 9/11, Seigenthaler said. â�?�?The FBI has the right to demand my name, without my knowledge, from a bookstore or library,â�? he said, citing one of the Patriot Actâ�?�?s provisions. â�?�?When freedom and fear are at war, thatâ�?�?s the greatest threat to our society,â�? he added. Seigenthaler pointed to a recent court case in which a California atheist did not want his daughter to recite the Pledge of Allegiance because of its reference to â�?�?one nation under God.â�? The court didnâ�?�?t rule on the recitation itself, but rather that the father didnâ�?�?t have custody of the child and therefore did not have authority to bring the case, he added. Seigenthaler provided a history of how â�?�?under Godâ�? was added to the Pledge of Allegiance with support by the Knights of Columbus and American Legion. And in one of the more unusual recent First Amendment cases, Seigenthaler spoke of the libel suit which evangelist Jerry Falwell filed against Hustler magazine and publisher Larry Flynt. The Supreme Court ruled that Falwell was a public figure and therefore could not sue Hustler for libel, Seigenthaler said. Seigenthaler later hosted an event which featured both Falwell and Flynt. â�?�?I thought we were going to have a food fight,â�? but the two had made amends and actually became friends, Seigenthaler added. In conclusion, Seigenthaler showed the many struggles which women, blacks and others have waged for civil rights decades and even centuries after the passage of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. A free press shone a spotlight on those protests, demonstrations and other struggles, which made those rights become reality, he said. â�?�?(The First Amendment) is as vital when we are afraid as when we are secure,â�? he said. Seigenthaler said he hoped the students in attendance cherished the First Amendment. â�?�?Donâ�?�?t take it for granted,â�? he said.