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Six people using First Amendment freedoms to make this a better nation – examples to us all

The 2022 Free Expression Awards took place on April 28 at The Anthem in Washington, D.C. and streamed live online. Watch the program here.

Our First Amendment freedoms are not just core to who we are as a nation; they are among the most important tools we have to move the country forward.

Six extraordinary people have used those tools in recent years to do just that. They have confronted bigotry and hatred, the legacy of slavery, challenges to academic freedom and religious liberty, and current attacks on the credibility of a free press and its role in society.

The six will be honored on April 28 as recipients of the Freedom Forum’s annual Free Expression Awards. And we are all the better for their efforts, even as polling for more than 20 years shows a nation near-evenly divided politically and splintered socially.

To be sure, violence and virulent discord has marred and distorted a period that otherwise would be a new era of citizen engagement rooted in First Amendment freedoms, on issues as varied as vaccinations and mask mandates, racial discrimination, gay and transgender rights, police operations and abortion rights.

This year’s FEA recipients are distinguished by their positive responses to this era of dispute, distrust and division.

In 2020, hate crimes nationwide against Asian Americans accelerated dramatically in a misguided spasm of bigotry and violence based on pandemic fears. Russell Jeung, Cynthia Choi and Manjusha P. Kulkarni founded Stop AAPI Hate to raise awareness about the attacks. By September 2021, more than 10,000 attacks on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders were reported to the group.

Nikole Hannah-Jones’s “1619 Project” explored the pervasive legacy of slavery in the United States, igniting a national conversation that continues today – and a backlash from those who would deny or ignore that legacy. Amid that backlash, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer initially was denied tenure at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Hannah-Jones successfully fought for reversal of that decision, but now holds the Knight Chair in Race and Journalism at Howard University. “A healthy society does not ban ideas,” she said. “If you don’t like an idea, come up with a better one.”

Alberto Ibargüen, president and CEO of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, is a longtime champion of journalism and the arts. He reminds us that, “You cannot have a functioning democracy without an informed citizenry.” To that end, he has led the Knight Foundation to decades of support for better, more representative journalism that reestablishes a flagging news industry as a community-based, credible source of information and government accountability.

Lawyer and scholar Eric Treene has spent a lifetime in service of his belief that “religious freedom, while self-evident, is not self-executing.” As special counsel for religious discrimination at the U.S. Department of Justice under four presidents, he led efforts to protect Muslim Americans and other groups from discrimination and bias in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The FEA honorees inspire us all to go beyond just identifying problems or focusing on the causes, but also to proposing solutions – an essential task under a First Amendment designed to foster debate, discussion and decision while working toward the best viable solutions for the greatest number of our fellow citizens.

John Seigenthaler, journalist and onetime aide to Attorney General Robert Kennedy and founder of the Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center, once observed, “Our First Amendment freedoms are never safe and secure, but always in the process of being made safe and secure.”

In my view, the nation’s founders baked two concepts into the 45 words of the First Amendment: The power of government to control “the public mind” should be limited, and the nation’s citizens should be engaged in the process of self-governance.

Each of us, in our own way, should be productively engaged in conversations and action on the issues of our time. Not with hateful rhetoric, political machinations or attempts to silence discussion but with a willingness to listen, learn and, at times, lead.

We have these six FEA honorees as examples to follow. If we do, we will join them in making our democracy safer and more secure.

By Gene Policinski, Freedom Forum senior fellow for the First Amendment.

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