Saluting Seigenthaler, First Amendment Champion

Gene PolicinskiCommentary

By Gene Policinski
First Amendment Center vice president/executive director 07.29.07

John Seigenthaler, founder of the First Amendment Center, wasn’t really present at the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

But there he seems to be — courtesy of some computer-age graphic magic — standing with the Founders of the Republic in a reproduction of a mural by painter John Trumbull that now hangs in his office, a tongue-in-cheek gift from his colleagues.

But as friends, family and coworkers mark his 80th birthday on July 27, it occurs to me that we all might be better off in terms of our freedoms if he had been there. No doubt he would have added his own strong voice to that of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and others.

Seigenthaler’s career has included turns as newspaper reporter, editor and publisher, a stint in the Kennedy administration that forever linked him with the Freedom Riders of the early 1960s, and lifelong duty as a defender of the five freedoms protected by the First Amendment.

More than five decades ago, he began writing and editing newspaper stories that defended and extended the public’s right to know what its government officials in Nashville, Tenn., were doing. Twenty-five years ago, he was the first editorial-page director of USA TODAY, creating a unique, multi-faceted forum.

In a column published over the July 4 holiday weekend, he took some high-profile congressional figures to task for proposing a revival of the Fairness Doctrine for broadcasters. He said, “It has nothing to do with fairness. It is intended only to muzzle right-wing talk-radio hosts who are chronically critical of Democrats in Congress.”

And just last week he spoke in Washington, D.C., to American Press Institute attendees — the latest in a string of API sessions that began 10 years ago when he was a youthful 70 — educating them about our basic freedoms.

I should point out that I work at the center that Seigenthaler founded in 1991. Further, I was a colleague of his when USA TODAY was getting started, though we didn’t directly work together. Be that as it may, Seigenthaler’s place in the First Amendment pantheon stands firm with or without any accolades from me.

Just ask the more than 6,000 journalists and news executives who have heard him speak at those API sessions (with Ken Paulson, USA TODAY editor). Following a multimedia presentation that combines information, competition and wit, those thousands who touch the lives of millions have come away with greater appreciation of the role of a free press in American life … and likely with a new bounce in their free-press footsteps as well.

Ask student audiences from Florida to Nebraska to Tennessee to Pennsylvania to South Dakota and beyond — all places where he has spoken about the unique amendment that has no equal elsewhere on the globe.

Venture into cyberspace, where Seigenthaler’s First Amendment concerns focus on a venture called Wikipedia — and where, after a widely read newspaper column he wrote about false statements posted about him on the site, an international debate began about such “self-correcting” information sources.

Ask students from Florida, and one inspiring but not-so-youthful former Freedom Rider accompanying them, who sat down on a recent afternoon in Nashville to hear Seigenthaler — who in 1961 during a temporary switch from newspapers was representing President Kennedy in talks with the Alabama governor — tell of being knocked unconscious in Montgomery, Ala., as he tried to defend two young women from a mob attacking civil rights workers.

Or ask the hundreds of people who last fall packed a lecture hall at the Seigenthaler Center, on the Vanderbilt University campus in Nashville, to hear him talk about how and why we have and need the protection of those 45 words that begin with “Congress shall make no law …”

There’s a great deal of debate around First Amendment issues today. What is the proper balance of religion and secularism in public life? What role does government have — if any — in regulating the content of television programs and movies? What may we say aloud and in print during wartime? How free or controlled should student voices be? How do we balance our right to support candidates by writing a check vs. the need to keep “big money” from corrupting politics?

As he and we celebrate his first 80 years, it’s worth noting what Seigenthaler had to say on Dec. 15, 1991 (the 200th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights), at the First Amendment Center dedication: “Freedom of expression is never safe, never secure, but always in the process of being made safe and secure.”

Those words are on the wall of the center that bears his name. They’re also a great challenge to the rest of us: to get as involved in saving and securing our liberties as he is.

Gene Policinski is vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, VA 22209. E-mail: [email protected].