FirstFive_07.01.21_30th

Perspective: Freedom Forum is 30 years old — and just getting started

The Freedom Forum is 30 years old this July 4, but in many ways is just getting started in its mission of “fostering First Amendment freedoms for all.”

The First Amendment will be 230 years old later this year. Like the Freedom Forum, it is as current as today’s ongoing disputes over free speech on the web, roiling protests in the street, bitter debates over religious rights and anti-discrimination laws and difficult new questions about the role of a free press in the 21st century.

For those uncertain what is even in the First Amendment, the Freedom Forum’s “State of the First Amendment” national surveys since 1997 say you have a lot of company. No more than six percent in any year could name all five freedoms in the amendment. Each year somewhere around one-third of us cannot name any.

In case you are asked, the five freedoms are religion, speech, press, assembly and petition.

For three decades, the Freedom Forum has fostered the public’s knowledge and understanding of our First Amendment freedoms:

Reaching millions in Washington, D.C., and online

Most publicly, there was the Newseum. One opened in 1997, in Rosslyn, Va., just across the Potomac River from downtown Washington, D.C. It closed as construction was under way for its bigger successor. The new Newseum was open from 2008 to 2019 on Pennsylvania Avenue — “America’s Main Street”— halfway between the U.S. Capitol and The White House.

Both Newseums were about all five freedoms, often through the lens of free speech or a free press.

About 11 million people visited the two Newseums, and the hundreds of thousands who toured the spaces each year were amplified many times over online. In just one year, 12 million students and teachers interacted with the Freedom Forum’s online education posts and lesson plans on topics as varied as social justice, media literacy, spotting “fake news” on the web and how we got those five core freedoms — all at no charge.

Educating journalists and teachers

The Freedom Forum has not only helped Americans value the First Amendment and free press, but also worked to make First Amendment education and journalism better. It has produced doctoral programs in journalism and published nonpartisan guidelines on how to teach about religion in public schools — the latter distributed by the Clinton administration to every public school in the nation.

The Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center, headquartered at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., and now named for its founder, editor and publisher John Seigenthaler, has produced publications, thought leadership, events, concerts, moot court competitions and television programs.

Through grants and guidance, the Freedom Forum helped in the creation of journalism groups representing Hispanic, Native American and Asian American journalists. That commitment to diversity and inclusion in a free press continues today with the Chips Quinn Scholars program (CQS), set up in 1991 to increase the number of people of color in U.S. newsrooms, and the Power Shift Project, established in 2018 to promote newsroom integrity and inclusion.

From international programs that trained journalists in other nations, libraries throughout the former Soviet Union, satellite offices on both coasts and around the world, education initiatives nationwide, two long-running television series and more, the Freedom Forum has advanced the values of the First Amendment.

Explore a behind-the-scenes timeline of 30 years of fostering First Amendment freedoms for all.

Thinking differently

The Freedom Forum’s work has focused on helping the public know, understand and defend freedoms set out by the First Amendment’s deceptively simple 45 words. Sometimes that work begins with noting that the opening phase “Congress shall make no law abridging …” now means any part of government, be it presidents or mayors, school superintendents or police officers, football coaches or agency administrators.

Relentlessly nonpartisan and apolitical, the foundation has both benefited from that posture — principally, as a convenor of all sides on a variety of issues — and faced criticism when recognizing that the First Amendment protects opposing and objectionable opinions.

The foundation has been prescient at times in its programs. In 1997, Freedom Forum founder Al Neuharth interviewed Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai about Lai’s rags-to-riches-to-newspaper publisher life story and the future of freedom in Hong Kong. Earlier this year, the Freedom Forum saluted Lai as one of its Free Expression Award winners — with Lai in a Chinese prison. Apple Daily was since shut down by a Chinese government ruthlessly backtracking on the city’s promised democratic exceptions to China’s authoritarianism.

Read Al Neuharth’s Feb. 2, 1996, column from USA TODAY on press freedom in Hong Kong.

Presaging the intense debate today over journalism’s ethics, the Freedom Forum in the mid-1990s launched “Free Press-Fair Press,” a multi-year, multi-million-dollar project that ranged from town meetings to newsroom guides and panel programs in the U.S. and abroad, with multiple spin-off initiatives at the Newseums.

Moving forward

What is ahead for the Freedom Forum? The First Amendment faces new challenges, particularly claims the “marketplace of ideas” concept, which has underpinned the amendment for 230 years, is outmoded in a global, web-connected world.

Foster First Amendment freedoms into the future by joining the 30th Anniversary Circle.

Our nation has been here before. In the early years of the republic, some First Amendment freedoms were enforcibly denied to women and people of color. The introduction of new technologies — from mass circulation newspapers to radio, TV and the internet — has produced fearful reactions over how the “new” would and did change society. The inherent conflict produced by the protection of fringe and extreme beliefs, faiths and opinions is not new, but the First Amendment is up to the task. The Freedom Forum’s next focus is to ensure a growing number of Americans grasp the 21st century relevance and importance of the First Amendment.

For 30 years, the Freedom Forum has been a rare voice heard on behalf of hearing all voices. In a competitive, fractured world that is often not an easy or comfortable position for any organization: Friend and guide for all, partisan of none.

But it is the path chosen by the founders of the Freedom Forum, advanced over three decades, and the renewed focus of today’s leadership — all in service of the 45 words of the First Amendment that frame the foundation and what it means to be an American.

Join us to celebrate 30 years of fostering First Amendment freedoms for all at a virtual celebration on Thursday, July 22. Come look back at three decades of fostering First Amendment freedoms for all and ahead at what’s next.

Pictured above, from left: Charles Overby, Martin Birmingham, Al Neuharth and John Quinn at the document signing ceremony establishing the Freedom Forum.

By Gene Policinski, Freedom Forum Senior Fellow for the First Amendment. You can reach Gene Policinski at [email protected].

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