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Library Panel: Keeping the First Amendment alive

A panel discussion on the meaning of the First Amendment was held October 25 at the library. From left, Town Councilman Paul Shepherd, Professor of Law Thomas Schweitzer, Reporter Editor Ambrose Clancy, educator Barbara Barnes and journalist Gary Paul Gates.

The Shelter Island Library hosted a lively discussion on press freedoms on Thursday, October 25. 

In a day when the press is labeled an enemy of the people and the internet makes dissemination of information universal but not necessarily responsible, how does freedom of speech and freedom of the press survive?

A five-member panel discussed the issue last Thursday at Shelter Island Library, concluding that education is at the root of being able to distinguish facts from fiction.

Educator Barbara Barnes quoted American philosopher John Dewey: “Democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife.”

Law Professor Thomas Schweitzer,who teaches at Touro Law Center, traced the history of the First Amendment, speaking about the application of free speech and press through to flag and draft card burning, and how the federal stance came to apply to state and municipal governments.

Journalist Gary Paul Gates and Reporter Editor Ambrose Clancy offered the media’s perspective while Shelter Island Councilman Paul Shepherd spoke about being on the other side — an elected official who was “terrified” of social media that allows anyone to say anything and do so anonymously.

“You can shop for what you believe,” Mr. Shepherd said about consumers of information.

Mr. Gates, who worked for United Press International and CBS News, said if the press is in the pocket of government, there is no freedom. He recounted a history of presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon and their relationships with the press, noting that President Kennedy canceled the White House subscription to the New York Herald Tribune, irritated by its coverage. That prompted columnist Art Buchwald to write, Mr. Gates related, “Yes, Virginia, there is a New York Tribune,” satirizing the classic editorial, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”

Similarly, when Richard Nixon lost his bid to become governor of California in 1962 after losing the 1960 presidential election to Mr. Kennedy, he held a press conference telling reporters, “You won’t have Richard Nixon to kick around any more.” But of course, Mr. Nixon did rise and become president in 1968.
Mr. Clancy said good journalists “can’t go screaming into the night. They just have to keep doing their jobs.” That includes correcting errors, he said. 

He discussed a couple of situations he and his staff have encountered in terms of local attempts to close meetings and in those cases, the paper referenced advice from Bob Freeman at the Committee on Open Government in Albany. State law allows for specific situations where a board may enter executive sessions, but the specifics of those occasions did not allow for closed discussions.

Mr. Gates referenced war situations in which reporters were endangered when they went to areas not protected by the military. Mr. Clancy spoke about recent occurrences of reporters being pushed around and even banned from political rallies in Suffolk County.

“It’s gotten dangerous,” Mr. Clancy said, referring to deaths of journalists, most recently, a Washington Post reporter killed in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, and the deaths of five staffers of the Capital Gazette, murdered in their Maryland newsroom.

There has been a change in perception of the media, Mr. Shepherd said, wondering how it has affected coverage.

“Something happened like a bomb went off and we’re in a post-bomb period,” he said.