“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.”
There has been much talk in recent days about the First Amendment and its role in preserving and defending our democracy. While I am not a constitutional scholar, I work with members of the press on a daily basis, and I have long held this particular tenant of our democracy close to my heart.
This shouldn’t surprise anyone. My work in public relations is dependent on members of the press being able to freely and honestly report on the news of the day. I can see, frankly, where my continual advocacy for members of the media might seem self-serving to the cynical.
What may surprise you though is just how far back my affinity for free speech goes, and just how dearly I hold its place in our national values.
My love for journalism started early. The earliest job I can remember my mom having was at The Marlow Review, the weekly paper in my hometown.
Mom was a reporter, and as is the case at many small-town newspapers, she wrote everything from crime briefs to recipe columns. Some days I would tag along, and I can still remember the distinct smell of the printing press, its odor sharp and sweet wafting through a dark back room of a red brick building on Main Street. I can still see the soft glow of the lightboards that held the pages for the next week’s issue with headlines and stories backed with rubber cement and pasted onto a newspaper sized puzzle.
Mom worked at The Review even as she finished her master’s degree and began her student teaching up the road at Duncan High School. When she finished her studies, she got a job teaching in Duncan, before she moved her classroom credentials to Marlow. There, she taught junior English (shout out to anyone who grew up with the grammar police at home), and she took over the high school journalism program.
The journalism program at our small school was unique at the time in the fact that mom’s journalism students were responsible for two full pages of content each week in The Marlow Review. Student reporters at Marlow High covered sports, school programs, student honors and special competitions ranging from Future Farmers of American (FFA) to speech and drama.
The class was open to students in grades 10-12, but it was mostly made up of juniors and seniors. When I was old enough, I took journalism as an elective (shoutout to anyone ‘lucky’ enough to have their mom as their teacher). As we studied the history of journalism my understanding of the role journalists occupy in our national foundation began to grow.
When I graduated from high school, I was fortunate to earn a President’s Leadership scholarship at the University of Central Oklahoma, where I earned my degree in journalism/public relations. My time on campus included two years working at our campus newspaper, The Vista, and my second year there was spent as managing editor. By then, newspaper operations had changed, and the cut and paste days of putting out a paper had given way to online pagination and story submissions via the Internet.
But the First Amendment remained the same, as it has since its adoption in the Bill of Rights in 1791.
Many images have haunted me in recent weeks, but none more so than the images of journalists fleeing for their lives in the middle of a violent protest. I watched in horror as camera equipment was destroyed, and microphone cables were used to make a noose on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol.
Journalists often stand in the middle of all hell breaking loose so the rest of the world can bear witness. Of all the damage done to our country over the last four years, the continual attack on Freedom of the Press – a right so sacred our forefathers chose to list it first in the Bill of Rights – is perhaps the least forgivable offense.
While journalism has changed over the decades, the journalists I know hold to a code of ethics that requires them to tell the truth, to ask hard questions and to use their platforms to inform the public, so that government may be held accountable and the public can advocate for change where change is needed.
Threats to journalists are a threat to our democracy; they are indeed a threat to all of us. My love for journalism and for the First Amendment started early, and it will not end. I urge you to join me in advocating for its protection – and for our own.