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.