Constitution Day discussion focuses on First Amendment

by: CHESANIE BRANTLEY/Editor-in- Chief

A panel of South Plains College professors joined together to voice their opinions on hot topics regarding the First Amendment during a Constitution Day presentation in the Student Center Building on the Levelland campus.

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution includes religion and expression. It states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Drew Landry, instructor of government, read the First Amendment to begin the event on Sept. 18, then questioned the panel members following their presentations.

The panel also wanted the audience to be more involved. Students were asked to tweet their questions or comments for the panel with the hashtag #SPCfreespeech, and the top three questions chosen would receive a free Constitution booklet.

The first panel member, Natalie Gray, instructor of history, discussed the history of free speech. Gray started by asking the question: why do we even have the First Amendment? “Honestly, it’s because, in the colonial period, while we were all English citizens, free speech was not guaranteed,” explained Gray. “If you were of descenting opinion, if you spoke out against Parliament or the king, you could go to jail.”

Gray went on to explain that some politicians in America wanted specific rights set that the government could not take away. One of the first items proposed was by James Madison, which was the First Amendment.

“Within seven years, we are already starting to curtail complete free speech,” Gray said. Gray led into the battle in Congress between the Federalists and Republicans over whether free speech was for everyone or just the elite of America.

“You’ve got the Federalists, who are like, ‘Yes, we’re protecting America by curtailing your speech,’ and you’ve got the Republicans saying, ‘It’s unconstitutional,” said Gray.

Landry, who served as the moderator, questioned Gray for the remaining time she had left for her presentation. Among those questions was the feeling of not being patriotic when questioning what our government is doing.

“The founding fathers actually say we should be able to question what people are saying in government,” Gray said. “It’s actually that question portion that is patriotic.”

To discuss freedom of the press, Charlie Ehrenfeld, chairperson of the Communication Department, associate professor of journalism and advisor of the Plainsman Press, presented next.

“If I had to pick a favorite amendment, the First Amendment would be it,” said Ehrenfeld. “Not just because it’s the first one, or because it’s one of those top 10 that form the Bill of Rights, but mostly because it’s at the heart of what I do.”

According to Ehrenfeld, the freedom of the press in the First Amendment applies to newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, TV, radio and the World Wide Web. He also said that any of those news media are not subject to government censorship, also known as prior restraint.

“Perhaps the most famous case regarding prior restraint was in 1971,” Ehrenfeld said. “The New York Times Company versus the United States.”

This case, according to Ehrenfeld, involved the newspaper’s right to publish official document excerpts in a series of articles. The president at the time concluded that would harm national security if published. The case became known as the Pentagon Papers. The court ruled in favor of the press.

“What this means is that newspapers and magazines are free to publish information as they see fit,” said Ehrenfeld.

Landry inquired as to why America needed a free press at all.

“It goes back to the beginning of the First Amendment, when the freedom of the press was set up so that the press can be the watchdog of the government,” Ehrenfeld said.

Next, Zachary Carlton, instructor in government, discussed free speech on campus.

“The Constitution may say that free speech may not be abridged, but the Supreme Court, for a very long time, held that government and their agents do have the right to enact certain restrictions within reason,” said Carlton. Carlton went on to discuss the limitations set for students for campus speech. One of the things that are seen at student speeches is what is referred to as the Heckler’s Veto, which is more of the government restraining speech because of the reaction from the crowd, but it does matter on campus also. “The Constitution said that speech shall be unabridged, but we have to have some degree of restrictions on speech,” Carlton said. “Not so much to curtail speech itself, but really to make sure that my speech will not be interrupted or infringed upon by your speech.”

According to Carlton, in the current legal climate, students have the right to assembly. He said before a student goes out on campus to say what he or she would want to say, he or she needs to talk to someone in an administrative position beforehand. This way he or she is within his or her rights. Students are able to have a place for free speech on campus as long as it does not interrupt normal traffic of the college. The quadrangle is the designated free speech area on the Levelland campus, because of the heavy foot traffic, and staying in the center circle would not interrupt the normal flow of the college.

This subject brought up by Landry was that overall, even though everyone has the best intentions, it has been turned into the equivalent of smoking zones. “Yes, I would say I see a lot of similarities there,” Carlton said. “One’s right to perform ‘x’ should not necessarily inflict a wrong on someone else.”

Kristin Sorensen, instructor of geography, discussed limits regarding free speech. She said that one of the things the Supreme Court looks at is the extent to which free speech should go. They also look at the location where someone is speaking.

“One of the big things (today) is dealing with the Westboro Baptist Church,” said Sorensen.

They protest soldiers’ funerals, and it eventually ended up at the hands of the Supreme Court, who decided they do have a right to do that. They can protest at these funerals, but they are not allowed to shout obscenities, and they must stay on public sidewalks, according to Sorensen.

Sorensen also discussed symbolic speech, such as the burning of flags, which is protected under the First Amendment. But people are still offended by it.

“What’s interesting is when a flag touches the ground, you’re supposed to burn it,” Sorensen said.

According to Sorensen, the Confederate flag is a part of our history. There was 20 high school students who recently were suspended from a Virginia school because they refused to remove the Confederate flag they were wearing. The Confederate flag has been removed from some public places, because people found it offensive.

“You have to be careful, because it is and isn’t covered under free speech, and people do find it offensive,” said Sorensen. “Yet, there has to be some guideline within that.”

This matter was compared to a previous case, Tinker vs. Des Moine, in the 1960s by Landry, when a man protested the Vietnam War by wearing a black patch, but was told by the Supreme Court he could.

“To me, it’s very similar, except one is a college student, so he’s technically awarded more rights because he is an adult,” said Sorensen. “It’s not a democratic society in high school, so you don’t necessarily have all of the rights under the Constitution, because you are a minor.”

James Kemper, instructor of economics, then presented the three best questions on Twitter from that morning. The first question from the audience was: “In Tinker vs Des Moines, schools cannot restrict symbolic speech. However, yesterday a radio show reported the Virginia school has suspended students for wearing Confederate flag clothing. Does the First Amendment give the students the right to wear this clothing?”

“The Confederate flag in many of the southern states is actually inviting violence,” according to Gray. “This Confederate flag was taken by the KKK (Klu Klux Klan) from inception and became their symbol of racial hatred.”

Gray said the KKK associated this flag with putting the African American down and basically back into slavery. The students do have the right to be racist, but they are potentially inciting violence.

“You can’t rewrite history,” said Ehrenfeld. “That’s what they are trying to do.”

According to Ehrenfeld, the Confederate flag is a part of history, and by that being taken away, the government is trying to rewrite history. He said what happened to those people, such as church bombings and lynchings, was horrible, but you cannot rewrite history.

Professors discuss the First Amendment at Constitution Day on Sept. 18 in the Sundown Room on the Levelland Campus. DEVIN REYNA/PLAINSMAN PRESS

“It’s a question for that particular school,” Carlton added. “Would the wearing of the Confederate flag disrupt the classroom environment?”

Carlton spoke up next about how the school can act in a parental capacity. He said a high school child is a minor, and the school has a greater responsibility to maintain decorum.

“It’s a high school,” said Sorensen. “Basically, if you’re under the age of 17, you have no rights.”

Kemper said the next Twitter question was as follows: “If obscenities are not protected, then how does Westboro get away with what they do?”

Carlton talked about the Snyder vs. Phelps court case where the Supreme Court voted that it was Westboro’s right to say the things they were saying. “If you’ve ever been to one of the funerals, it can be very offensive,” said Sorensen. “There has been a modicom of protection from outside sources that come into help protect the families from that.”

Gray said it sounds to her like the church just wants a lot of attention. She also said people must understand that what is obscene changes.

“Society gets more permissive over the years with what people can say and do on TV, radio and movies,” said Ehrenfeld.

The last Twitter question from the audience member was as follows: “How does free speech relate to immigrants, and how would recruiting for things like ISIS relate to free speech and religious beliefs?”

All of the panelists agreed that the issue of ISIS recruiting for their terrorist group would not be protected under the First Amendment. They all also agreed that immigration was a hot topic.

According to Ehrenfeld, it is a cut-and-dry issue that if you are an American citizen you are protected under the First Amendment. But if you are not a citizen, you should not have any rights.

Sorensen said it was a little more complicated than that. Gray also said she was not sure what and what could not specifically be said.

Carlton had the last word, saying that although immigrants may not have the right to free speech, there are not going to be people checking every immigrant at a rally to see if he or she is an American citizen.

The winners of the Constitution booklets were William Dodge, Timothy Miller and Natasha Henry.

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