The First Amendment Makes News, Every Day
Two reporters dedicated to reporting how the First Amendment affects Americans’ lives every day say there is no shortage of stories to cover that relate to the essential freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition. They spoke at a Sept. 7, 2023, event to open the new Washington, D.C., headquarters of the Freedom Forum, a nonpartisan nonprofit whose mission is to foster First Amendment freedoms for all.
Angele Latham has been on the First Amendment beat for The Tennessean in Nashville since fall of 2022. Douglas Soule has covered the First Amendment for the USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida since June 2023.
Soule’s stories have included:
- Book access questions and hearings.
- Free speech on Florida college campuses.
- School yearbook challenges.
Latham has covered:
- Protests and petitions over drag shows.
- An uproar over protest on the floor of the Tennessee legislature.
- A law that would have prevented reporters from having access to certain 911 calls and death certificates, generally considered matters of public record.
- Parents petitioning for gun control legislation after the Nashville Covenant School shooting.
“Almost every story has a First Amendment angle,” says Latham. “[It] goes to show people just how intrinsic it is to your daily life, even when you’re not thinking about it.”
The push-pull between government and religion is a big aspect of the beat in Tennessee, Latham says, and she always has feelers out to sources in religious and activist groups to capture stories about religious freedom and petition. She adds, “Lately, if anyone’s been following Tennessee news, freedom of assembly has been a huge issue, which doesn’t get mentioned enough.”
Latham covered the March 2023 Covenant School shooting that killed three students and three staff members and the protests that ensued when legislators did not pass gun control legislation.
The protesters were “from every walk of life and every edge of the political spectrum, and they were all there because their hearts were broken by what happened in March, and they wanted their legislators to hear them.” One of the mothers wept, saying she had voted for the party in power, yet felt unheard.
“Later that day I saw her handing out ― she had printed off the First Amendment, hundreds of copies ― and she was just handing it out,” Latham said. “And it was so interesting watching these people who normally are not involved in their government in that way on the front lines of this, and all of them are promising to come back in January, so this is all going to happen again. It was a wild two weeks, but it was heartbreaking, and it was exhausting, but it was also a really powerful demonstration of how anyone, even if they’ve never thought about their involvement with the First Amendment, can be so heavily impacted by it.”
One hotly debated topic in Florida – and around the country – is efforts by some parents and legislators to limit access to books in public schools and libraries, particularly books that explore sexuality and race.
“The five freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment are as pervasive as the air we breathe, and, just like the air we breathe, we don’t always notice it’s there until it’s gone.” – Douglas Soule, First Amendment reporter, USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida
The First Amendment’s protection for free speech opens the door for debate on the matter. “There's one side who's concerned about the books on the shelves … and they would like to see those books removed,” says Soule. “And then on the other side, there's people who don't want those books removed and want them kept on the shelves. So, it's just kind of a tug of war between those groups … that's kind of exploded on the public stage and school board meetings from one end of Florida to the other.”
Soule cited the Freedom Forum’s 2023 Where America Stands survey, which found people want parents to have more say than legislators about what’s taught in schools.
Before he was on the First Amendment beat, Soule covered Hurricane Ian in 2022, and reported a story on just how reporters get access to death data – reflecting press freedom and its protections under the First Amendment. (Soule also covered the more recent Hurricane Idalia, making news himself for stepping in to help extinguish a fire.)
“There's very few things that you can't work into a First Amendment angle, and that's one of the things that makes the beat so compelling,” says Soule.
Readers have noticed the new coverage of the First Amendment, both journalists said.
“The more I cover, the more people know about the beat, and they come to me with stories,” says Latham. “It also shows you what people are really eager to read.”
Soule’s inbox reflects that interest as well. “I've been stunned, absolutely stunned with the response of our readers to the coverage we've done. My stories have never done better, and I think it just shows the appetite there is” for stories about the First Amendment.
Latham was sunburned and arguing with police about her right to be present six hours into covering a hostage situation when she got an email about the First Amendment reporting job. “When I was notified about the opportunity to actually just focus my love of legal reporting on the First Amendment, I was like, I can't see where my resources would be better put. I mean, it's the whole reason we're here.”
Added Soule, “I've long known the First Amendment is constitutional armor for good journalism. Highlighting the importance in what’s at stake with the First Amendment and generally educating our readers about it, I couldn't think of a better job.”
Angele Latham and Douglas Soule’s positions are funded through a Freedom Forum partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, The Tennessean and USA TODAY Network-Florida.