John Seigenthaler, editor emeritus of The Tennessean and founder of the First Amendment Center, discussed the five freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the urgency of keeping them highly valued by both public and press, during an appearance at Belmont University sponsored by the university’s New Century Journalism program.
Seigenthaler noted that regular polls taken by the First Amendment Center show that only about one in 100 people in America can name all five freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment – freedom of religion, freedom of press, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of petition. When people who work in the news media are polled on the same question, Seigenthaler said, “they don’t do much better.”
Other First Amendment Center polls show a decline in public support for those freedoms, Seigenthaler said. For example, one poll found that 40 percent of Americans think you should not be able to play music that offends people of another race or religion, and 60 percent think you should not be able to make public statements that offend people of another race or religion.
If that latter opinion was the law, Seigenthaler said, “Jesse Jackson wouldn’t be able to call the head of the Ku Klux Klan a ‘redneck cracker.’ That’s what we’re talking about.”
Seigenthaler said that, a few days after the First Amendment Center opened in 1991, he got a call from a lady in Chicago asking, ‘When are you going to do something to Rush Limbaugh off the radio.’ Well, ‘That’s not really what we’re about. We’re about more voices, not fewer voices’.”
Seignthaler said he told the lady that if he wants to “hush rush,” he turns the radio dial. “She said, ‘I tried that and got G. Gordon Liddy’.”
The best answer to offensive speech is more speech, not silencing it, Seigenthaler said. “If you don’t want to hear it, “Tell the sponsor, ‘I don’t want to hear it.’ And they’ll respond – the market does respond.”