September 25, 2006
Barkley Forum debates value of free speech
Throughout this nation’s history, the ambiguity of the celebrated words, “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,” found in the First Amendment has been the source of both pride and agony.
Some have criticized the media for overstepping its boundaries of free speech, at the cost of national security; others have argued that free speech is free speech. And with The New York Times recently coming under attack for publishing an article that outlined the government’s use of a bank surveillance program to monitor terrorist finances, attempts to define what free speech actually means are far from over.
Thus, a debate that sought to answer the question, “Has the First Amendment outlived its usefulness?” was a timely and appropriate approach for Emory’s second annual Constitution Day, sponsored by the Center for Student Leadership and Engagement. Roughly 70 students and journalism faculty gathered Sept. 18 in the Dobbs Center’s Harland Cinema to watch current and alumni members of the Barkley Forum, Emory’s nationally acclaimed debate society, engage in a lively 80-minute debate over what the nation’s most valued amendment does and does not guarantee the press.
Karen Salisbury, director of the Center for Student Leadership and Engagement and assistant dean of Campus Life, opened the night by welcoming the audience to “embark on a wonderful journey on the intentions of the First Amendment.”
Moderator Isabel Wilkerson, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for The New York Times and Emory’s newly appointed James M. Cox Jr. Professor of Journalism, called the discussion a rare opportunity for both journalists—who are usually too busy exercising their right to free speech under deadline—and the public. Wilkerson cited survey results that indicated Americans’ general lack of knowledge on what the First Amendment protects, pointing to the timeliness and relevance of such a discussion.
Before handing the floor over to the debaters, Wilkerson expressed her own opinion on free speech and the press, quoting Thomas Jefferson: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Arguments for the affirmative to the question of whether the First Amendment has outlived its usefulness included the unprecedented threat of danger facing the country today and potential threats to national security the media could cause by exposing anti-terrorism strategies. Emory College junior Joe Bucciero argued “the press’s callous indifference [for national security] . . . could pave the way for thermonuclear annihilation for us all.”
College sophomore Tye Tavaras also warned against “the enormous consequences of a catastrophic attack.”
Opponents argued that terrorism was an exaggerated threat and that the press should be free to serve as the fourth branch of government.
“The probability of terrorist threats needs to be kept in perspective,” said College junior Julie Hoehn, who cited studies that found the probability of drowning in a bathtub to be greater than the likelihood of getting killed in a terrorist attack.
College senior Elise Borochoff also argued the importance of showing the world that the U.S. lives up to its own standards of freedom. “It’s dangerous to sacrifice freedom to preserve freedom,” she said.
Cyrus Ghavi (’06) and Kamal Ghali (’03) provided the rebuttals for the negative and affirmative sides, respectively. The night ended with a question-and-answer session.
Constitution Day was established in 2004 when U.S. Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia proposed a national Constitution Day, to be observed on Sept. 17, the day the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1787.
Salisbury’s vision for Emory’s observance of the spirit behind the designation is to continually engage students in thinking about the Constitution in a fresh, stimulating way.
For example, Salisbury, along with colleagues Katherine Brokaw of student affairs in the School of Law, and Elizabeth Elkins of Campus Life, have talked about setting up “soapboxes” with microphones around campus, where students can literally stand on a soapbox and publicly express their opinions to passersby.
“This would help students recognize that that’s how our constitution was formed—when people stood up and talked about their ideas,” Salisbury said. “It’s important to engage people in active thinking—even if they have just one ‘aha!’ moment.”