Journalism Student Reflection of WPNI

By Daniel Moore

During the spring semester, I was pulled in many different directions, part of many different groups and studying many different issues — all from one of the busiest, fast-paced cities in the world. But in the end, it was well worth it. I spent the past 14 weeks in Washington D.C. as part of the political science department’s Washington Program in National Issues (WPNI), currently one of the longest continuously running study away options at 40 years. I interned with the Student Press Law Center, a nonprofit that provides free legal advice for high school and college journalists.

There, I worked for the publications wing, which manages the website and social media but mainly focuses on producing news content about First Amendment court cases across the country. In the office three days a week, I wrote an average of three to six daily news stories during that time span. I also contributed three magazine stories for the SPLC Report, which is published three times a year. Topics ranged from covering court hearings, free speech on social media, newspaper thefts, retaliation against journalism advisers for raising free speech issues, public records disputes, high schools censoring newspapers and yearbooks because they didn’t like the subject of a story or photo — all the way to a college trustee physically taken a recording device out of a student reporter’s hand in public. The stories were some of the strangest and most eye-opening I’ve ever seen, mainly because it’s hard to believe some school administrators think they can get away with breaking the law. First Amendment law  specifically, freedom of speech and freedom of the press — is so often overlooked, and that came as news to me. Most members of the American public will look at high profile speech cases like the Westboro Baptist Church protests. But “speech” can extend into so many forms and mediums today.

I’ve come to the conclusion that when people ask me if I think censorship is getting better or worse in this country, I will say, “I think it’s becoming more overlooked.” Because while society is becoming more progressive and free, we are also experiencing a technological wave, which changes the way we express and muddles the laws that have stood for decades. For example, I wrote a magazine story about “Confessions” pages on Facebook that trended this spring at high schools and colleges across the country. Students could submit an anonymous “confession” to a third party website like SurveyMonkey and an anonymous administrator could take it and post it to Facebook. Thus, the popularity of “Confessions” pages grew as students would “like” the page and read funny, embarrassing and sometimes serious messages that their fellow students were too shy to say in person. As a result of a generational disconnect, school administrators very often don’t see any benefit in having a page like this. Many didn’t understand how it was even speech or expression. Some tried, successfully, to shut them down on the grounds it was bleeding into school activity. But what they don’t understand is that although some of the messages were debatably “pointless,” as one administrator put it to me, and although some crossed the line into the area of “sexually explicit” or “threatening,” the confessions of those students are no less legally protected speech than the notes they used to pass each other as kids, or the anonymous messages they used to write on the bathroom wall. The concept is the same. The difference is in the technology, and the fact that when a confession is anonymously posted on Facebook it is both instantly permanent and worldwide. There is no teacher to intercept and throw away the note; there is no janitor to clean off the bathroom wall. So the question is often posited that because we have greater means of communication and expression and, therefore, greater means of reporting on the world around us, do the social norms, laws and regulations change as well? Is it enough to alter how we perceive and censor speech? Does it even alter our Constitution, the first right on our bill of rights? It’s an important discussion to have, and the answer likely lies in the gray area of compromise.

While on the topic of compromise, I’d like to end my reflection with a note about what I learned from living the city of Washington, from reading my subscription of the Washington Post every day, from attending briefings as part of WPNI every Thursday. I was always cynical about DC politics, but I think I managed to become even more so seeing it from the inside. I learned in my Public Policy class at Kent State that the success and failure of certain issues in politics are fueled by narratives — “stories of success” and “stories of failure,” primarily. An issue I was deeply impassioned about, reducing gun violence, died in the Senate last month. In short, the least offensive, watered-down legislation that had the approval of 90 percent of the American people — background checks — failed to pass because of a powerful pro-gun lobby and the lack of “political muscle” of the pro-gun control interests. Meanwhile, comprehensive immigration reform has found compromise, and therefore the lives of 12 million undocumented people living in the U.S. will likely soon change for the better. Although they don’t have the numbers, the fact that 20 dead schoolchildren cannot shake the rhetoric blanketing Washington is not a good sign for the issue in the future. The “nation of immigrants” story — a “story of success” — is much more powerful than the “20 dead schoolchildren” — a “story of failure” — in the eyes of politicians. They see economic benefits and job creation in highly-skilled immigrants rather than the tragedy in massacres. Of course, I see the world through politically biased eyes, too. But being in Washington during such a collapse of hope, it drove home my preconceived views of the city and of the federal government.

My Semester in Washington, D.C.

Throughout my time in Washington D.C., I had many different experiences from riding the metro, to witnessing impoverished people begging for money on the streets, to having the opportunity to visit historical museums and landmarks any time I wanted to, to just enjoying the diversity of the city.  Even though I had these experiences on an everyday basis, the best experience that I had and the one that I learned the most from was through interning with the Public Defender’s Service of D.C.:

To my surprise there is a huge socioeconomic split in Washington D.C.  Along the National Mall there are many Smithsonian museums and the Capitol building on one end and the Lincoln Memorial on the other.  Beyond the Lincoln Memorial is the Tidal Basin which holds the Jefferson and Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorials and beyond the Capitol building is the Library of Congress as well.  When families decide to make Washington D.C. a part of their next family vacation, they do so because of these historical landmarks.  Never would a family decide to visit Washington D.C. if they were to stay in the Anacostia area or on Martin Luther King Jr. Ave in D.C.  These are different areas that I had to visit while working for the Public Defender Service of D.C. this semester and I can say that these locations are ones that I will never pick for my family vacations in the future.  Surprisingly enough, Martin Luther King Jr. Ave is only about 3 miles away from the Capitol building, yet not many tourists have even heard of the area in D.C.  Washington D.C. is a very sophisticated city, with many historical landmarks and many places for entertainment and because of its reputation many people are naïve to the fact that D.C. may have some flaws as well.  I learned about these flaws within the realms of working for the Public Defender’s Service of D.C.

Throughout the semester in Washington D.C., I worked as an investigator for the Public Defender Service of D.C.  I worked specifically for an attorney, Cortney Lollar, and I did any and all work that she needed me to do at any given time.  Basically, I worked on misdemeanor, felony, mental health, and domestic violence cases.  I went to hospitals to get medical records at least once a week, canvassed different areas of D.C. almost every single day and served a great deal of subpoenas as well.  With serving subpoenas also came typing out subpoenas, which means using the old fashioned typewriters.  That was a challenge in itself at times and I learned to appreciate the desktop computer even more.  Some work  days lasted from 10am-5pm with non stop working out in different areas of D.C., while other days lasted just as long, but with more breaks in between.  No matter what I did on any given day, I worked hard and completed my tasks to the best of my ability.  I never knew what my tasks would be on any given day, but I loved not knowing because it made each and every day interesting and exciting.  Not knowing what my duties were each day impacted my work experience so much more because I never had the chance to prepare for what I had to do each day and this showed me that I really knew how to do my job well.

This internship was everything that I was hoping and wanted it to be.  I learned a great deal of information that I will keep with me forever.  Most of this information I will also use in my pursuance of becoming an attorney and I hope to return to the Public Defender Service of D.C. to be a staff investigator after I graduate from Kent State next spring.  I will not forget anything that I learned or forget the experiences that I had while interning at PDS.  I cannot put into words how much of an affect this internship had on my life; this whole experience was worthwhile and there is nothing that I regret about this experience.  This internship has also heightened my career goals even more; it has solidified my career goals to be exact.  I have wanted to be an attorney for a long time and I decided to apply to be a member of the Washington Program in National Issues offered through Kent State in order to decide if law is what I want to practice.  This internship not only has solidified my decision to become an attorney, but it also has increased my desire to work as hard as possible to get into law school and become an attorney.  I am preparing and will be taking the LSAT in October and after this internship experience I know that I am willing to work as hard as possible to get into law school and make my dream a reality.

By Anastasa Williams