Award-winning journalist and First Amendment advocate John Seigenthaler began the College of Law Speaker Series by leading the discussion “First Amendment Challenges Posed by New Media Technology” on Oct. 30 in the Massey Performing Arts Center.
“We look upon technology as the enemy that has served as the end of newspapers, but it is a simple, different way of delivery,” he said. “If newspapers can make online content as attractive as in the blogosphere, then readers seeking credible information will follow … and advertisers will follow.”
Seigenthaler read “Blessed are the Cursored,” his tongue-in-cheek forecast of technology’s impact on journalism. He recalled the evolution of media from his first day as a cops reporter to serving as publisher of The Tennessean, including hiatuses that made him part of the John F. Kennedy administration and the founding editorial director of USA Today.
He also shared his personal experience with the dark side of the First Amendment, anonymity and Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which prohibits information service providers from being treated as publishers or broadcasters as it relates to defamation. Anonymously posted libelous statements about Seigenthaler appeared on Wikipedia in 2005. His editorial that publicly condemned the website as a non-credible source led to the website revising its policies.
“Democracy depends on the work of the free press,” Seigenthaler said. “The founding fathers gave the 45 words of the First Amendment to make sure there was an independent means to criticize and condemn our government.”
Seigenthaler founded the First Amendment Center in 1991 with the mission of creating national discussion, dialogue and debate about First Amendment rights and values.
A former president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Seigenthaler served for 43 years as a journalist for The Tennessean. At his retirement he was editor, publisher and CEO. He retains the title chairman emeritus. Seigenthaler left journalism briefly in the early 1960s to serve in the U.S. Justice Department as administrative assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and is known for his work during the Civil Rights Movement.
“Lawyers like to think they are guardians of civil liberties, but tonight we are reminded that we are joined in that fight by journalists,” said College of Law Associate Dean for External Relations Charlie Trost, who called Seigenthaler the “foremost journalist in Tennessee history.”