Teleconference centers on First Amendment

By Dan Jacobson

A nationwide teleconference and discussion at NIU Thursday centered on the First Amendment and how it affects academic freedom and freedom of speech on college campuses.

The conference consisted of a live broadcast including a panel of speakers with questions phoned in from around the country.

The moderator of the conference was Charlayne Hunter-Gault, an Emmy and Peabody award-winning national correspondent for the The McNeil/Lehrer News Hour. The panel consisted of Nat Hentoff, a columnist for The Village Voice and The Washington Post; Marianne Merritt, a law clerk with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund; Robert O’Neil, former president of the University of Virginia; and sociology professor Orlando Patterson, the author of Freedom in the Making of Western Culture.

The conference started off with a taped explanation of the First Amendment by Anthony Lewis, a noted authority on the First Amendment. The first topic discussed was the rights of students in the classroom.

A sample case was that of an African-American student who was opposed to reading Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. The teacher threatened the student to conform or pay severe consequences. The panel agreed the teacher was acting insensitively and was wrong.

The second topic addressed involved the freedom of expression on university or college posters on campuses. The example provided was a fraternity that used posters with illustrations of scantily dressed women to promote a party the fraternity was holding.

A feminist group on the campus opposed the posters and began tearing them down. The panel discussed whether or not the feminist group was within its rights to remove the posters and have judicial action taken against the fraternity.

Merrit noted the posters were protected by the First Amendment. If they were taken down then the fraternity would be able to complain about whatever posters the feminist group put up and take them down too, she said.

The final topic discussed was how much administrators should become involved in what is printed in campus newspapers. The example-incident involved a columnist that insulted a Latino group on campus.

O’Neil led the discussion saying the campus newspapers use the university name and funds and are the primary source of information for the students. Therefore, there is a basis of responsibility for the administrators to protect the newspaper, he added. But, he said, it is absolutely wrong for administrators to have any say in what goes into editorials.

A discussion with some of the students, faculty and administrators present followed the teleconference. NIU Legal Counsel George Shur said he thought the presentations were good examples of the problems he has faced at NIU.

“The issues raised made me feel rather at home,” he said. “It’s comfortable to know we are not alone. We appear to be right in the mainstream of problems on campuses.”