Constitution Day and the First Amendment

By Molly Igoe

News Editor

Constitution Day is celebrated every year on Sept. 17 to commemorate the day in 1787 that delegates to the Constitutional Convention signed the document in Philadelphia.

According to the Washington College website, “Since 2005, all educational institutions that receive federal funding have been required by congressional mandate to celebrate Constitution Day by offering venues/information related to the Constitution.  WC encourages all members of its community to be familiar with the U.S. Constitution, and has provided resources that you may find interesting.”

Out of the 27 amendments to The Constitution, perhaps the most important for newspapers like The Elm is the First Amendment. The First Amendment’s freedom of speech and press clause states what is specifically protected and what is not.

According to the Constitution Center website, “Congress cannot jail, fine, or impose civil liability on people or organizations based on what they say or write except in exceptional circumstances; speech and press (which includes any publishers) covers not only talking, writing, and printing, but also broadcasting.”

Dr. Elizabeth Foley O’Connor, an assistant professor of English, teaches an Introduction to Journalism class at WC and received her degree from Hofstra University in Journalism and English.

The first Ammendment and freedom of the press is extremely important to American newspapers, even those as small as The Elm.
The first Ammendment and freedom of the press is extremely important to American newspapers, even those as small as The Elm.

She said, “Constitution Day is important because many college students are unaware of their specific freedoms, which they tend to take for granted, and what role the press can have in their lives.”

Adam Goodheart, director of the C.V. Starr Center, is also a journalist. He was previously an editor for The New York Times and has had a passion for journalism since he was in high school.

Goodheart said, “I became passionate about journalism in high school when I was interning at WHYY, the National Public Radio affiliate in in Philadelphia. This was in the 1980s, when apartheid was being covered extensively in the media, and Bishop Desmond Tutu, who was one of the leaders of the movement against apartheid, was coming to Philadelphia. I asked if I could get press credentials to record the speech, and the radio station said yes. To be in the same room as one of my greatest heroes, as a 16-year-old, was incredible.”

He said that people do not always realize how hard journalists work to gain the trust of their subjects and that to treat a topic with impartiality is quite difficult. The scrutiny the media tends to face was clear to Goodheart when he worked at The New York Times.

Dr. O’Connor said the purpose of journalism is to “report accurately and ask difficult questions. Journalism is telling people stories about what is happening when they maybe don’t have the energy or resources to find out themselves.”

She used the Syrian refugee crisis as an example of journalism as a form of storytelling, which has evoked the world’s sympathy and attention.

Goodheart said, “Despite the fact that people talk about the ‘decline of journalism,’ I think some of the greatest reporting is being done right now – for instance, by journalists like Andrea Elliott of the New York Times or Katherine Boo and Peter Hessler of The New Yorker, who capture the lives of ordinary people in the U.S. and in places like India, China, and Egypt.”

There are still some problems with modern journalism, according to Goodheart, including the increasing partisanship of the media, and many newspapers and magazines catering to shorter attention spans to forgo deep, complex issues in favor of sensational stories and lists.

He said, “The disappearance and downsizing of local papers makes it more difficult for young people to find journalistic apprenticeships and experience, and also means that the ethics and traditions found in newsrooms are not being handed down as they used to.”

Another issue is the decline of local newspapers like The Baltimore Sun and The Philadelphia Inquirer, as well as smaller papers. “This greatly affects the culture of journalism, civic discourse, and the ability to hold leaders accountable,” Goodheart said.

Dr. O’Connor echoed Goodheart’s statements about the changing culture of the media. She said, “According to a recent Gallup Poll, less than 10 percent of the American population trusts the media.”

However, she said, “The First Amendment gives us a lot of freedoms that people in other countries do not have. We are lucky to have the ability to ask difficult questions.”

Dr. O’Connor described the purpose of journalism as creating people who are empathetic and well rounded about issues happening around the world. She stressed the importance of sharing impactful, moving stories that tell the truth.

“Journalism gives us the opportunity to see history being made first hand, which is quite powerful,” said Goodheart.

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