Amid a cultural controversy regarding free speech and the role of the press in criticizing the government, about 30 students and Ann Arbor residents attended a panel hosted by the University of Michigan Law School Thursday afternoon commemorating Constitution Day and discussing the role of free speech in U.S. history.  

Law professor Leonard Niehoff hosted the panel and opened the discussion, emphasizing the importance of dialogue that outlines the distinction between protected free speech and sedition — conduct or speech designed to incite rebellion against the government.

“We find ourselves living during a time when the question is whether the criticism of the government by the press has become repressive or unfair,” Niehoff said.

Niehoff went on to reference President Donald Trump’s definition of the press as “the enemy of the people,” highlighting the importance of the First Amendment in allowing the people to hold the government accountable.

Panelist Ashley Messenger, the in-house counsel for NPR specializing in issues that affect news gathering and dissemination, said the U.S. Constitution revolves around the involvement of everyday citizens.

“There really is no such thing as government,” Messenger said. “If you actually read it (the Constitution) it says it does not establish the government, it does not establish authority, it establishes a process. The way we interpret the First Amendment actually means all of us in the process, not just those in government. You actually need the participation of others to lead this country properly.”

Former U-M professor Vincent Blasi, currently a professor at Columbia Law School, explained the distinction between protected speech and sedition has been frequently disputed throughout U.S. history.

“Truth was no defense (against allegations of libel or sedition),” Blasi said. “If anything, it undercut the government even more. Falsity was applied to conjecture and characterization.”

Blasi explained free speech was not always protected, and laws like the Espionage Act of 1917 sent citizens to jail for speaking out in criticism of the government.

“We take it for granted now that we can say what we want even if it gives the government a bad reputation, but it wasn’t then,” Blasi said.

Niehoff explained potential issues with speech and even the Constitution that the government continues to encounter today.

“We have this model and yet it is sort of fraught with problems,” Niehoff said.

Blasi and Messenger agreed the Constitution is something that is constantly evolving in government.

“The Constitution itself is an experiment,” Blasi said. “We’ll see how long it works.”

As students expressed uncertainty regarding whether free speech, particularly that of the press, will continue to be protected, Messenger said from her experience at NPR she does not feel the press’s voice will be silenced.

“Media law is actually a really well-established law,” Messenger said, “It’s not new for the government to feel threatened by the press. Does the law tend to be on our side? Yes. Because the First Amendment is not partisan. It does not discriminate. It would be an incredibly uninformed and shortsighted move to go after the media.”

The panel was open to the public and the audience featured several of Niehoff’s law students, as well as local Ann Arbor citizens.

Law School student Scott Haeck said the panel was a valuable experience.

“I have a personal interest in the civil rights law and in this day and age, government criticism in particular,” Haeck said. “Besides, when else do we get to rub shoulders with such highly respected people? I thought some interesting points were raised and it was a valuable experience to have these valuable philosophical discussions raised in a setting where we are not trying to get to a particular point.”

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