Noted First Amendment scholar talks history of censorship during Fresno State visit

The Fresno BeeDecember 6, 2013 

Visitors to Fresno State's First Amendment Celebration on Friday were treated to a nontraditional keynote address about the freedoms that are often taken for granted but need to be protected.

Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University and dean of the College of Mass Communication at Middle Tennessee State University, said only one in 25 people can describe the five freedoms of the First Amendment -- religion, press, speech, assembly and petition. He sought to address that deficiency with The Great First Amendment Quiz.

It did not take long for Paulson to get warmed up in his delivery as he gathered the audience of about 40 people around him.

""I always try to be at least as interested as the audience," Paulson said. "It tends to work if people take the leap of faith that it will be fun."

Attendance at the event was lower than expected because of a campus power outage Thursday evening, and those who did attend were bundled up in coats and scarves in the frosty auditorium at the Satellite Student Union.

Over the course of about an hour, the audience laughed, cheered and listened in attentive silence as they discovered how little they knew about the history of censorship.

"We have a nation that doesn't really know what the First Amendment says or what the Bill of Rights says," Paulson told the group of students, faculty and community members. "You owe it to yourselves to be informed citizens."

Tamara Hill, a fifth-year senior at Fresno State, said afterward that she turned to her friend at one point and wondered if it was too late to take a history class.

"It gave me more understanding," Hill said. "I knew some of it, but I needed it to be refreshed."

"Eye-opening" is how Fresno State student and event co-chair Veronique Werz described the lesson.

"Our students need to know about the First Amendment and the reality of the world," Werz said.

The quiz covered everything from Henry VIII censoring books after the Gutenberg Printing Press was developed to the FBI investigating "inappropriate" or "subversive" music.

Technology, Paulson said, has made the First Amendment more important than ever, and he made a point of encouraging the audience to send tweets during the competition.

"Whenever there is improvement in technology, the government tries to license it and control it," Paulson said.

Perhaps the most serious warning Paulson passed along to the audience was about the dangerous effect of fear.

"When we as a nation are frightened, we take shortcuts with the Constitution," he said. "If you are not careful, fear can color our culture."

How to watch

Friday's First Amendment Celebration will be shown in its entirety (around 4 hours) on Tuesday at 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. and again on Dec. 14 at 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. on the Community Media Access Collaborative's Education channel, Comcast 94 or AT&T 99. On Tuesday the program will also be viewable online at cmac.tv.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6279 or jrayburn@fresnobee.com.

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