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Thursday January 20th

First Amendment Day struggles to find balance between commemoration and controversy

Rhonda Gibson, UNC journalism professor, presents First Amendment trivia with Kyla Garrett Wagner at Linda's tuesday night.
Buy Photos Rhonda Gibson, UNC journalism professor, presents First Amendment trivia with Kyla Garrett Wagner at Linda's tuesday night.

The UNC School of Media and Journalism celebrated its ninth annual First Amendment Day on Tuesday, opening conversations about free speech and the role it plays in the lives of Carolina students. 

The day-long celebration included banned book readings, student debates, presentations on free speech and discussions about journalists’ interactions with the First Amendment. 

David Ardia, co-director of the UNC Center for Media Law and Policy, said 600 students participated in First Amendment Day events last year, and they'll carry the principles they learned there for years to come. 

“I like to think of First Amendment Day as planting a seed in the minds of Carolina students,” Ardia said. “A First Amendment seed that will grow and blossom as they head out into the world.”

An excerpt from the First Amendment has been inscribed on the wall in the lobby of Carroll Hall since the building’s designation as the School of Journalism. 

“The First Amendment is alive and being challenged on every front,” said Susan King, dean of the School of Media and Journalism, at the opening ceremony. “It's being challenged by challenges in our city, challenges in our University campuses and it's being debated at football games.” 

The key speaker at the opening ceremony, Cathy Packer, is co-director of the Center for Media Law and Policy and has her undergrad roots in the school. Packer has been a professor for 30 years and started First Amendment Day nine years ago, and this day will be her last before retirement. 

“That process of learning through each other requires tolerance and civility, which we don't see much of nationally,” Packer said. “We live, work and study at a great public University. We can model what it means to be free citizens who take full advantage of their opportunities to speak freely about important issues and are unafraid to hear other people's ideas or even suffer real hurt to serve the greater good.”

The Campus Y took this day to voice their concerns about free speech on campus regarding their banners taken down by UNC

The Campus Y used Twitter to make a statement, tweeting, "We will not be silenced," along with photos of their banners. Alexander Peeples, co-president of the Campus Y and a columnist for The Daily Tar Heel, said if they cannot change the racist geography on campus, they will create a space where people can have a voice against Confederate symbols. 

"We wanted to say that (the University was) being hypocritical," said Courtney Staton, co-president of the Campus Y. "We wanted to say that their assertions that they do stand by the First Amendment and that they do support students is not really true."

Limitation on free speech is a controversial topic, but Rachael Jones, a research fellow at the Center for Media Law and Policy, said everyone is entitled to their own opinion about the application of the First Amendment.

“The thing I always say is that I'm happy to defend deplorable speech, but I will do it supporting my own speech at the same time,” Jones said. “So this isn't black and white. I think there are areas of gray.” 

Packer said after all these years, she still loves her public University.

“I love it despite those damn bogus classes that we'll be hearing about forever. I love it despite the University's vilification of the News and Observer for exposing that scandal. I love Carolina despite its failure to be as brave as I think it needs to be in protecting free speech on campus.”

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