Photo of Newhouse 3 exterior

The Power of Words

By Wendy S Loughlin

September 19, 2017

Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the Spring 2007 issue of the Newhouse School magazine, the Newhouse Network. It is republished here in observance of the 10th anniversary of the dedication of Newhouse 3 on Sept. 19, 2007.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

The words are spelled out in letters six feet high, etched in glass, wrapping the edifice. The third building in the Newhouse Communications Complex is more than just a building; it is a message, and a symbol. Displaying the words of the First Amendment, it makes a striking statement to all who visit the Syracuse University campus—that the First Amendment continues to be a vital part of American democracy, and lies at the heart of American journalism.

“This is who we are and this is what we do,” says Newhouse Dean David Rubin. “Without the First Amendment, most of what we do in the Newhouse School would not be possible or would be done in a vastly different way.”

Indeed, since its adoption in 1791, the First Amendment has played a crucial role in the evolution of communications. “I don’t think American journalism or American journalism education would be possible without the First Amendment,” says Charlotte Grimes, Newhouse’s Knight Chair in Political Reporting.

The People in the Driver’s Seat

The Founding Fathers believed strongly in the importance of an informed public and open, public debate. “Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press,” Thomas Jefferson once said, “nor that be limited without danger of losing it.” As a safeguard against possible government tyranny, and with its provision for freedom of the press, the First Amendment positioned journalists in a unique role within the democracy: that of watchdog. “There was a suspicion of a government that was too strong, a suspicion about letting government control what got printed and what got said,” says Newhouse professor of communications Jay Wright, an expert in communications law and co-author of the books The First Amendment and the Fourth Estate and The First Amendment and the Fifth Estate (both published by The Foundation Press). “The assumption would be that in a democracy, if you have power resting in the press to expose wrongdoing by the government, you’re less likely to have wrongdoing.”

Says Grimes: “That whole notion of freedom of the press embodies everything that we do as journalists, and it’s at the heart of what we teach our students—that they have this obligation to be a watchdog on government and those with power. You can’t be a watchdog if you don’t have some wonderful protection from interference. The First Amendment gives us that.”

Fittingly, the First Amendment was truly a product “of the people, by the people, for the people,” Grimes says. “It’s important to remember that when the Constitution was passed, it didn’t include the First Amendment,” she says. “It was the people who rose up and said, ‘We want more protections.’ That’s why we have the First Amendment—people, the people, demanded it. And the First Amendment assures—at least as much as anything can—that the people are in the driver’s seat.”

An Independent Press

The media’s watchdog legacy evolved over the past two centuries, but Grimes points out that the gatekeeper role of the press was all but absent in the early days of the democracy. In the years immediately following the American Revolution, newspapers were usually partisan, having been founded by the political parties themselves. “They chewed up each other, but they didn’t really ever look at themselves,” she says. “They never raised questions about their own parties, who were paying for the ink and the paper. I think it was a profound change when newspapers in particular became independent from the parties.”

That change came later on, during the 19th century era known for “Yellow Journalism,” with the birth of the “penny press,” the widespread use of the Associated Press and the rise of “crusading journalism” by the great press barons like Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. Despite its negative connotations, Grimes says, “Yellow Journalism actually did a lot of good. Many of those crusades changed things.” She points to the story of Nellie Bly, who, as a reporter for the New York World in 1887, had herself committed to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island in order to chronicle the conditions there. “Her stories so horrified people,” Grimes says, “that great changes were made in the care for the mentally ill. You wouldn’t have had that being done under a partisan press.”

This tradition of “accountability journalism,” which holds people in power accountable and often leads to reform, has become the hallmark of American journalism, viewed by many as journalism at its best. The Watergate stories of the 1970s and, more recently, the unveiling of problems at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, are notable examples. “Journalists are eager to tell untold stories and journalists are eager to point out wrongdoing by government and other large authorities,” Wright says. “The long tradition of people breaking stories is all part of the package.”

Threats and Challenges

But the First Amendment also has faced its share of threats and challenges. In the late 18th century, the Sedition Act made it illegal to criticize—in speech or in writing—the Constitution or the government of the United States. The act expired in 1800. In 1971, when The New York Times began publishing stories based on the “Pentagon Papers,” top secret documents detailing the U.S. government’s involvement in Southeast Asia as early as the 1940s, the Nixon Administration secured court orders stopping publication for 15 days. Eventually, the Supreme Court ruled the restraint unconstitutional, and publication resumed.

Some would argue that attacks on the First Amendment have escalated in recent years. In particular, the threat of terror, seemingly more pressing since September 11, 2001, has in many cases led to a suppression of information in the name of national security. “Terrorism is a real threat, but people are increasingly trying to control speech-related things that might or might not be terrorism,” Wright says. “It’s easy to toss that word around and use it as a justification for a lot of things that don’t fit well with the notion of freedom of expression.”

Wright says the modern notion of being “politically correct” also is a possible threat. “Many people have a big concern with not hurting other people’s feelings, with trying to curtail free speech that wouldn’t do physical damage to somebody, wouldn’t damage their reputations in the libel sense, wouldn’t invade their privacy, but might hurt their feelings, because they might not be words that the subject of the comment would like used about them,” he says.

Grimes sees the changing nature of today’s newsrooms as another problem. “I fear for the future of watchdog journalism in our environment today, where news organizations are trying to convert themselves into ‘information centers,’ and cutting back on the numbers of reporters,” she says. “If you think of yourself as an ‘information center,’ you’re not doing much watchdog journalism. In fact, you may not even be doing journalism. It’s a shame to have that powerful, vivid protection of the First Amendment, and to degrade it to protect our right to purvey mere information instead of news.”

Still, despite threats, the First Amendment has thus far prevailed, a fact that “speaks to the wisdom of the founders, and speaks to and illuminates the values that are embodied in the First Amendment,” Grimes says. “But history tells us that the First Amendment is constantly under threat, and that it always will be. We have to keep fighting for it. Anybody who believes that we’re ever going to be able to stop fighting for the First Amendment is deluded.”

Making a Statement

The showcasing of the First Amendment on the outer walls of Newhouse 3 is a statement not only about the importance of the amendment to journalism and journalism education, but also about the Newhouse community’s commitment to the amendment. “The Newhouse School must be a place that challenges government to respect the value of free speech and open debate, and its graduates must accept the responsibility of advancing this cause in their own work,” Rubin says. “We are charged with promoting the free speech and press that the Founding Fathers knew were necessary to a functioning democracy.”

The display also makes a statement about the importance of the First Amendment to American society at large. “Embedded in those five freedoms are the things that we value most in our democracy,” Grimes says. “If you look at free speech, a free press, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, the right to petition... throw in elections, and you’ve got democracy.”

“That we can put this right at the gateway of campus is something for the Newhouse School to be particularly proud of. It is a statement about and for us, but it is also a statement about and for the things that a good university always stands for—the values of democracy.”

 

Dedication of Newhouse 3

Newhouse 3, the third building in the Newhouse School complex, was dedicated on Sept. 19, 2007. John G. Roberts Jr., Chief Justice of the United States, delivered the keynote address to a capacity crowd at Hendricks Chapel. Following his remarks, a dedication ceremony was held at the entrance to the new building, where Roberts was joined by S.I. Newhouse Jr. and Donald Newhouse and their wives, Dean David Rubin, Professor Jay Wright and student Stephanie Rivetz. While an estimated crowd of 2,500 looked on, they cut through a “ribbon” of newsprint to officially open Newhouse 3.