Saturday, November 6, 2010

Student Post: First Amendment Center

By Taylor Smith

I spent my EJF Summer Fellowship working as a Legal Research Intern at the First Amendment Center, which is based in Nashville at Vanderbilt University but has a satellite office here in DC at the Newseum. The First Amendment Center is a non-partisan, non-litigating entity founded in 1991 by former USA Today editor John Siegenthaler for the purpose of educating the public, teachers, government policy makers, lawyers and students about the core freedoms protected by the First Amendment. The nexus between legal justice and my work rested on the theory that First Amendment rights must be asserted in order to have legal effect, and must be
known in order to be asserted. Considering that only four percent of Americans can name all of the individual rights guaranteed to them by the First Amendment, there is plenty of room for improvement in this area. Pursuant to that end, I spent my time researching and writing articles on three topics that my bosses asked me to write about: Justice Ginsburg’s record in First Amendment cases, public access to government-held information since 9/11, and the free exercise rights of divorced parents in child custody litigation.

I was originally attracted to the First Amendment Center in part because I felt that in the wake of the Citizens United decision, corporate speech rights were likely to become a hot-button issue, especially as the midterm elections loomed in the near future. As it turned out, the First Amendment was indeed all over the news this summer, but not in conjunction with debate over corporate speech rights. Instead, the media focused on the controversy over the free exercise rights of those planning to build a Muslim community center near Ground Zero and the free speech rights of those protesting the construction, including some who burned or threatened to burn the Qur’an.

That turn of events was somewhat of a letdown because in my estimation, the corporate
speech issue is fraught with legal ambiguity fit to be debated, while the “Ground Zero Mosque” issue was, legally speaking, an open-and-shut case: of course the First Amendment protects the builders’ right to build and the protesters’ right to protest. By contrast, there are complex and compelling arguments to be made on both sides of the corporate speech issue, and for that reason I wish it had received as much attention as the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy. If it had, I think the public debate would have been much more interesting, and the First Amendment may have been highlighted to the general public as the complicated bundle of rights and judicial interpretations that it really is.

The most rewarding aspect of my internship was corresponding with Constitutional
experts, from whom I was usually soliciting a quote for an article. In that respect the internship was a hybrid between Constitutional law and journalism. It definitely afforded me the opportunity to do a large amount of research and writing. Although my work at the First Amendment Center was not as closely tied to legal justice as, say, keeping innocent people out of jail, I still felt that the organization and my contributions to it had social and civic value in line with the spirit of EJF. I sincerely appreciate the funding, and would recommend the First Amendment Center especially to anyone who enjoys writing in general and wants to do a lot of it over the summer.

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