Speaking Out

Melissa Paugh
May 01, 1999

The 45 words of the First Amendment are printed in tiny letters on the back of Robert D. Richards' business card.

That's one way Richards, an associate professor of communications and law at Penn State, tries to keep these 200-year-old words fresh. "The First Amendment is not afloat in a safe harbor," he says in his new book, Freedom's Voice: The Perilous Present and Uncertain Future of the First Amendment. "In fact, free speech is perhaps more under siege now than ever before in this country's history."

police hold students against a bus

In Freedom's Voice Richards lists the assaults on free speech in the past decade. He investigates exactly who is responsible for monitoring public expression and how nationwide complacency endangers the rights we take for granted—to speak out on issues, to criticize elected officials, to worship freely, and to participate in government. Chronicling the changing interpretations of the First Amendment, and incorporating the challenges of the legal system and technology of today, Freedom's Voice presents a "survival manual for the First Amendment," Richards says.

The biggest threat to our constitutional right to free speech, he believes, is apathy. The numb public—having seen flags burnt, a crucifix submerged in urine, and endless debates over pornography on the Internet—should also have noticed the increasing number of lawsuits against ordinary public citizens for libel, interference, and slander. A concerned citizen at a zoning hearing board who speaks out against the drainage of wetlands for a building project could receive what Richards calls a SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation). Sued for interference or slander, the "concerned citizen" becomes a helpless underdog, fighting against large corporations and facing hefty monetary costs.

police’s back in front of crowd

"People are shocked and appalled that these things are going on," remarks Richards. As codirector of the Pennsylvania Center for the First Amendment, he has helped to draft anti-SLAPP laws that are at work protecting citizens in some states. These laws safeguard writers of letters to the editor, protesters, demonstrators, and others with legitimate grievances and opinions to air, forcing the legal system to identify SLAPP cases, to act quickly, and to provide more equitable settlements, as well as to provide extra protection for citizens participating in government.

Other topics raised in Freedom's Voice include the effects of cameras in the courtroom, the influence of political correctness on debates in college classrooms, legal definitions of obscene in relation to controversial artwork, and the impossible task of policing the Internet. "The goal of this book is to open up avenues of discussion and contribute to a renaissance of enthusiastic vigilance for sharpening the key tool in participatory democracy," Richards says. The increasing reluctance of Americans to address such unpopular topics as racism should be a red flag, he says, for educators to study the First Amendment in the classroom and remind students of their constitutional rights. The future of constitutional free speech lies in recognizing that it needs to be protected.

Robert D. Richards, Ph.D., is associate professor of communications and law in the College of Communications and codirector of the Pennsylvania Center for the First Amendment at Penn State, 215 Carnegie Bldg., University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-1900; rdr2@psu.edu. Freedom's Voice was published in 1998 by Brassey's, Inc. Additional reporting by Kimberley Yarnell Bierly.

Last Updated May 01, 1999