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Natural Awakenings

Preserving Americans’ First Amendment Freedoms: A Conversation with Kenneth Paulson

Jun 30, 2011 10:48AM ● By Martin Miron

Kenneth A. Paulson, co-founder, former editor and senior vice president of USA Today, is president and CEO of the Freedom Forum, Newseum and Diversity Institute. He is widely known for his efforts to inform and educate Americans about First Amendment freedoms, drawing on his background as both a journalist and a lawyer as the executive director of the First Amendment Center, at Vanderbilt University.

What prompted the framers of the Constitution to introduce the First Amendment as part of the Bill of Rights in 1791, and what does it mean to citizens in practical terms?

Actually, it wasn’t the framers who were so insistent on freedom of speech, press, religion, petition and assembly—it was the American people. A number of states refused to ratify the Constitution until personal liberties were guaranteed in a Bill of Rights. Those early Americans understood that the ability to worship the God of your choice, to speak out against injustice and to write freely would be the cornerstones of our democracy. These basic rights remain at the heart of what makes America a special nation today.

Why have you lectured widely about “rebooting America,” to make the First Amendment more relevant to a new generation?

My “rebooting America” lectures have been an effort to remind young Americans that the First Amendment protects all the things that give life flavor. For example, we all understand that the First Amendment protects freedom of speech, but it also protects the freedom to tweet, to post on Facebook, dance, sing and create. It’s an amendment that enriches the lives of every generation.

A free press is a cornerstone of democracy. In the face of increasing corporate consolidation of media outlets, what do you think citizens can do to try to keep the news free from manipulation?

Yes, there are major media companies that own multiple newspapers and television stations. But with the advent of the Web, everyone is a publisher and there have never been more independent voices with more to say all around the globe. I believe that most of America’s newspapers continue to do as good a job as they can in covering the communities they serve, but declines in circulation and revenue have meant staffing cuts. One way to help support a free press is to subscribe to a newspaper, in publication or app form.

 “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.”
~ The First Amendment to the United States Constitution, from the Bill of Rights

How do you think the public’s concerns about the energy, environment, food safety and other health issues can best be “petitioned and redressed,” as the
First Amendment states?

Most of the “petitioning” in America today comes from professional lobbyists, but we now live in an age when someone with a passion for a cause and a creative idea can literally change the world overnight. We’ve seen social media campaigns draw extraordinary attention and build enormous energy to help improve our quality of life and environment. Petitioning for change doesn’t just belong to the professionals anymore.

What do you feel is the role of individual citizens in maintaining the long-held freedoms that we enjoy today?

It’s important that we never take the First Amendment for granted. Ask yourself this question: “What does the First Amendment say?” Surprisingly, only about 5 percent of Americans can describe the scope of the freedoms contained in the First Amendment. We too often take it for granted. The surest way to lose freedom is not to treasure it.

To increase awareness about the importance of these five freedoms, we’ve teamed up with educators, journalists, advocates, attorneys and librarians to celebrate the First Amendment in a campaign called 1 for All. If you don’t know as much about the First Amendment as you’d like, is a great place to start.

Marty Miron is a freelance writer and editor for
Natural Awakenings. Connect at [email protected].

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