A famous quote by British newspaper publisher Lord Northcliffe remains imprinted on a white wall of the Newseum in Washington D.C.
“News is what somebody, somewhere, wants to supress.”
Northcliffe’s words will always have a lasting impression on me as a student journalist because of the Al Neuharth Free Spirit Journalism Conference I had the opportunity to participate in this past summer.
The week-long conference in D.C. brought together 51 student journalists from across the nation to learn not only the latest advancements in the field of journalism, but also our responsibility to promote the rights of free press and free speech in our future careers as journalists.
I, and the other students chosen to represent their home states, sat in on social media classes presented by Freedom Forum director of education Val Hoeppner, attended a taping of “Meet the Press” by David Gregory at NBC Studios, spoke with USA Today editor John Hillkirk and had a question and answer discussion with USA Today founder Al Neuharth.
These are all experiences I am grateful to have the opportunity to carry with me in my journalism career, but the knowledge I aquired about the First Amendment in American culture through the conference spoke to me the most.
Before the conference, I was naïve to the fact that the majority of Americans are not familiar with their First Amendment rights. During a National Press Club luncheon, my fellow Free Spirit scholars and I learned that more Americans can name the five “Simpsons” characters than the five rights they are guaranteed in the First Amendment.
My disbelief at how much Americans take their freedoms for granted also struck me as we spent the day touring the Newseum. The interactive museum holds 14 galleries filled with exhibits about Hurricane Katrina, the coverage of the Sept. 11 attacks, Pulitzer- Prize-winning photos and a piece of the Berlin Wall, but the exhibit that resonated with me the most was the world map in the First Amendment Gallery.
Countries that have a free press were presented in green, and those with a censored press were in red. To my eye, more than 50 percent of the world was smothered in a bright red, a red that signaled to me a need for change.
Freedom Riders John Seigenthaler, Susan Wilbur Wamsley and Rip Patton are free spirits who used their First Amendment rights to change U.S. segregated culture in the 1960s. My fellow student journalists and I had the honor of meeting these inspirational heroes and asking them about their experiences.
Patton remarked that during his young adulthood, he felt he would be killed walking down the street for being African American, so he believed that he would rather die fighting for a cause than for the color of his skin. These words reminded me of the many Middle Eastern citizens who die in today’s world just to have a voice in their government.
Patton’s stories, as well as Wamsley’s and Seigenthaler’s, showed me that fighting for your First Amendment rights is the most important thing a citizen and journalist should strive for, and that we as young adults have the power to be a voice for those in our world who have been denied one.
The leaders at the Freedom Forum and the student journalists who took part in the Al Neuharth journalism conference taught skills that will not only guide me in my path as a journalist, but as a citizen fighting for and protecting my First Amendment rights.
The next Al Neuharth Free Spirit Journalism Conference will take place in Washington, D.C. July 14-19 in 2012. The conference is open to current high school juniors. Students can apply online at www.freespirit.org by Feb. 15, 2012 for the next conference which includes an all-expenses paid trip to D.C. and a $1000 college scholarship.