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Matt Payne - DRC

Panelists discuss state of 1st Amendment

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By Matt Payne

University of North Texas political science professor Kimi King seemed to regard the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution as a double-edged sword.

She warned of isolating one’s views and the polarization of one’s perspective, calling it the most unnerving thing to witness in the classroom. King posed that an individual’s views cannot be reaffirmed without the benefit of civic discourse, be it in agreement or disagreement.

“My concern about free speech is how it gets bandied on campus,” she said. “We drag it out when it’s effective for us as a tool, but if we don’t like it or disagree with it, we shut it down. It becomes this idea of speech for me and not for thee. You have to be very careful who you choose to demonize.”

This two-way street ideal was echoed by four fellow experts of academia, journalism and law Thursday night as part of “First Amendment: Under Siege?” a panel hosted by the Mayborn School of Journalism at UNT. Panelists included Texas Tribune political editor Aman Batheja; The Dallas Morning News business correspondent Michael Lindenberger; Potomac Strategy Group President Matt Mackowiak; First Amendment attorney Paul Watler; and King.

Jim Dale, a marketing specialist at UNT, said the Mayborn’s aim was to raise issues and facilitate discussion in a time when major news outlets are relegated under the epithet of “fake news” by those in power.

In the wake of President Donald Trump’s victory in November, who has denounced media outlets as dishonest and phony, the question of whether this harms the integrity of the freedom of speech and of the press more than ever was raised.

“The media has become a part of the story, and that’s one thing the media doesn’t want to do. We’ve been made a part of the story,” Dale said. “The First Amendment, which includes freedom of assembly, religion and everything else, is the layer between the powerful and the government — without it, bad things would happen.”

The panelists depicted the rights afforded by the First Amendment enable a marketplace of ideas and argued if one’s voice is to be heard, one should be open to hearing another opposing voice.

As to how that idea manifests itself in the media, Batheja discussed Trump’s teetering views on government leaks. Though Trump encouraged leaks about the Democratic National Convention during his campaign, he chastised media for reporting on leaks related to former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who was reported by several media outlets to have conspired with Russian officials before Trump took office.

“He argues against and is mad about leaks, calling them fake news,” Batheja said. “But if it’s fake, what got leaked then?”

In spite of that, the panelists acknowledged Trump has every legal right to criticize the press. What raised concern among the speakers was the possibility of Trump using government instruments to enforce his will against the media as punishment.

Although Mackowiak, who served as an aide under the Bush administration, was confident in the system of checks and balances in the federal government to limit the president’s power, Lindenberger and Watler expressed uncertainty toward the subtext behind the president’s opposition to the press.

This flows down to the sharing and dissemination of information as well, the panelists also discussed. This included the importance of researching the news outlets behind online articles before sharing them on Facebook and to look beyond just an attention-grabbing headline.

“I think the First Amendment is much more fragile than we think,” Lindenberger said. “Trump is not the threat, but the undermining of these freedoms itself is.”

MATT PAYNE can be reached at 940-566-6845 and via Twitter at @MattePaper.