Overview of the First Amendment Conference
On Monday, Oct. 12, the Eastern New Mexico University Communication Department co-sponsored the annual First Amendment Conference with Dr. Janet Birkey’s Communication 460 class. This year’s topic was “the need to protect public health versus the right to assemble.” The virtual conference featured Dr. Jeff Gentry, Dean of the College of Fine Art and Communication professor at ENMU; Dr. Steven Brust, Assistant Professor of Political Science; Dr. Josh Bramlett, Assistant Professor of Communication; Dr. Darrell Roe, Assistant Professor of Communication; and Samuel Coronado, a student at ENMU. The event was hosted by Randy McCoy and Kylie Hutchison, both students at ENMU in Birkey’s Communication 460 class.
Gentry, described by Hutchinson as “a First Amendment enthusiast,” started the conference by giving an overview of the First Amendment. Dr. Gentry described the First Amendment as “unusual, both historically and in present day” because of the freedoms that are actually recognized in a legally binding document. He also said, “despite the snickering claims of Europeans, the [United States] is the freest country in the world by a mile.” Another point he made was that “we don’t do prior restraint in this country;” unlike in other countries, criticisms of politicians, or anyone else for that matter, cannot be stopped here. He wrapped up his portion by saying “no one should get to decide my freedoms, or yours;” that is why we live in country with a “government of laws not men.”
Brust spoke about the rights United States citizens have to publicly assemble. He gave the background to where the right to assemble came from; this right actually came from citizens petitioning the government. This was seen as the main way for citizens to try to make the changes that they wanted. Brust said after this right was specifically laid out in the Bill of Rights, many just saw it and the freedom of speech as the “right to expressive association” with groups. He also mentioned that, then and now, the right to assemble is not “absolute;” when using this right, there cannot be a threat to public safety, which came into play during all of the different protests and gatherings during this pandemic. If there is a threat, the government can restrict the gatherings, as we have seen this year. One thing that Brust emphasized was the government “need[s] to be transparent” when it comes to these restrictions, and not send mixed messages.
After that, Bramlett spoke about how communication in the different forms of media start and affect social movements. He said that “media have always played a role in relation to social movements,” both historically and especially in the modern era. This happens because activists, or anyone else wanting to make a change, use various forms of media to get their messages out to anyone willing to listen. Bramlett stated that this causes an “intermedia agenda setting effect,” where social media can affect what is being talked about in the main stream media, like the news. For the future, we will only see the use of social media for social movements increase.
The final section of the conference was a panel with Gentry returning, and also included Roe and Coronado; Brust and Bramlett also added to the conversation at various times. The first question to the panel was about whether or not colleges should be allowed to take scholarships away from people who have broken rules put in place because of the pandemic. Roe thought that taking a scholarship away seemed like a “very permanent solution,” and worried that it may be ending someone’s college career. Coronado had similar concerns; they both felt that there may be different steps to take. Brust also felt that it seemed “drastic,” and if this happened, instructors and other faculty members should in some way have to face consequences as well. There were further questions about to what extent the First Amendment extends to social media; how much the government can restrict public, private and religious gatherings; and social media’s role in all of this.
The First Amendment conference was recorded and can be found on the ENMU Department of Communication’s Facebook page.