Newseum Panelists Debate Status, Future of First Amendment

October 24, 2016

“Do we as a nation still have the same commitment to freedom of speech that America’s founders envisioned?”

That was among the questions debated last week at the Newseum’s Free Speech Week panel discussion, “Free Speech: Still the ‘American Way’?” The Newseum has now posted video of last Thursday’s event to its YouTube channel, so you can check out the entire enlightening conversation for yourself.

Jeffrey Herbst, CEO of the Newseum and Newseum Institute, moderated the discussion on the current state of the First Amendment in American society, whether the First Amendment goes too far in protecting offensive or even deceptive speech, and what, if anything, should be done about it.

Panelists included Robert Corn-Revere, a First Amendment attorney who has worked extensively with FIRE; Rodney Smolla, a First Amendment scholar and dean of Widener University’s Delaware Law School; John Watson, a lawyer, journalist and American University professor; and John M. Seigenthaler, former NBC, MSNBC and Al Jazeera America news anchor.

Despite the speakers’ shared First Amendment expertise, each brought a distinct point of view to the discussion. For example, Herbst asked the panelists to begin by discussing the greatest current threat to the First Amendment. Seigenthaler said the current contentious political climate posed threats to the free press.

“Those challenges are real,” he said. “And they’re very frightening.”

Watson cited basic human nature itself as a constant stumbling block to preserving speech we dislike.

“Freedom actually means jointly deciding where that freedom ends,” Watson said, adding that respecting speech one disagrees with means that, on some level, “I have to devalue my own.”

Smolla and Corn-Revere both discussed free speech on college campuses, with Corn-Revere identifying “three essential preconditions for strong protections for free expression as we move further into the 21st century: … First, the rule of law. Second, the courage of our convictions. And third, an appreciation for the spirit of liberty.”

He noted that college campuses are a great place to look to see if those preconditions are being met. 

For example, on the question of whether we still maintain the courage of our convictions, Corn-Revere observed:

The framers of the constitution were not timid people, and they knew that a necessary condition for going forward and for protecting free expression is courage. … The question will come up on whether or not an interest in trigger warnings, safe [spaces], heightened sensitivities, microaggressions are conditions that you would call courageous.

And all of that discussion stemmed from just the first question!

Watch for yourself to see the panelists debate the challenges posed by the rise of anonymous Internet speech, whether concerns about free speech are overblown, and much, much more.