Students informed about freedom of speech on Constitution Day

The development of free speech, how the government works to protect our First Amendment rights, and recent controversies that have been seen on social media were the main topics discussed at the Constitution Day event at South Plains College.

The event was hosted by Timothy Holland, government instructor. He is the one organized the event and served as the moderator for the discussion held Sept. 21 in the Sundown Room in the Student Center Building on the Levelland campus.

The panelists included Drew Landry, assistant professor of government, Dr. Sharon Bogener, professor of History, and Lubbock attorney Dane Norman.

On Sept. 17, 1787, the founding fathers formally signed the Constitution and today, this signing is commemorated with the annual event known as Constitution Day. All education institutions that receive federal funding are required to hold a Constitution Day event.

Constitution Day was held at SPC with a public presentation or discussion on important issues taking place within our country. Constitution Day is open to all students who were interested in better understanding free speech and the First Amendment.

Dr. Bogener opened the discussion by expressing the fact that the government had struggled for centuries to protect rights to speak freely.

From the late 1700’s to the modern era, this right has changed drastically. However, though the course of time, the government has placed restrictions as to how far we can go to practice freedom of speech.

“All throughout the 19th century, there was any number of incidences that limited free speech,” Dr. Bogener said.

Many occurrences that took place during that time involved any individuals who spoke out against slavery or those who participated in any form of strike or protest could end up with a one-year prison sentence.

In 1918, before World War I, the United States government passed another Sedition Act that still made it illegal to criticize the government and their policies.

Dr. Bogener stressed that “under the Sedition Act more than 2,000 people were arrested and more than 1,000 of those people were convicted, and again, this is a clear violation of their First Amendment right.”

Even while all of this was happening throughout the country, nobody had challenged these issues until 1919.

Certainly, the government has improved on protecting free speech, and “the First Amendment was created to protect us from an abusive government that would want to censor us,” Landry said.

According to Norman, the benefit to allowing free speech is essentially to keep away the danger of government censorship.

“Once the government can begin to censor what ideas and opinions we are allowed to express, at a certain point they would be able to control and shape our opinions,” Norman said.

The government made it to where citizens are allowed to express themselves freely without the fear of the government stopping them from practicing their First Amendment rights.

Landry also mentioned that former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who was a conservative, once wrote, “not all constitutional rights are unlimited,” meaning that there are limits to the rights of citizens.

When it comes to individuals using slander to ruin one’s reputation and /or career, that is when the government will step in with laws that have been placed to put restrictions on individuals abusing their freedom of speech.

This is known as malicious intent, meaning an intentional, wrongful act against someone without a justified excuse and causes harm or damage as the result.

When the government steps in to help out citizens who are being attacked, they use defamation laws to balance the protection for the individual’s reputation with freedom of expression.

However, generally all opinions want to be protected, according to Norman. While being able to express one’s own opinion, the issue is when something is presented as a fact when it is false.

With defamation laws, there are some issues that can stay protected and some that cannot, depending on the damage that it causes. If an individual is at fault, then they must show that what they declared to be true is a false claim.

An example that was used by Norman is the accumulating opinions such as if Ted Cruz is the Zodiac Killer. Individuals can still form these opinions, even if it is not founded on any solid information, as long as there is still a distinction between the facts and opinions.

This has been a major issue noticed by a large number of young individuals who use social media. This concern has been currently affecting the younger community, and it has played a huge factor in formulating opinions about the government.

Although it is acceptable to make these opinions, according to Landry, it can be difficult to differentiate between opinion and fact, especially with how fast information spreads throughout social media.

“That’s why you should not rely on a single source as your information,” Dr. Bogener said. “To really be informed, you need to get your information from various sources and opinions.”

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