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VOL. 42 | NO. 43 | Friday, October 26, 2018

MTSU positions itself as center for First Amendment study

By Jeannie Naujeck

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Since joining Middle Tennessee State University five years ago, Ken Paulson has transformed its College of Media and Entertainment. As dean of the college, he has expanded its curriculum, attracted new talent, added innovative new programs and even changed its name.

The former attorney, journalist and media executive spent much of his career with USA Today, rising to editor-in-chief before he was tapped for academia in July 2013.

Along with strong involvement in Nashville’s music industry, Paulson is also a prominent First Amendment scholar and advocate who has served as president of the John Seigenthaler First Amendment Center for the past 10 years.

He recently testified before a U.S. House of Representatives committee on First Amendment rights on college campuses. Paulson spoke with the Ledger about that issue, the need to teach civics and media literacy, and MTSU’s recent momentum.

You recently testified that we need education, not legislation, regarding free speech on college campuses. But last year the Tennessee General Assembly did pass what is considered one of the nation’s most comprehensive free speech laws.

(The Tennessee Campus Free Speech Protection Act bans “free speech zones” on campus, bars institutions from rescinding invitations to speakers who were invited to campus by students or faculty, narrows the definition of student-on-student harassment and prohibits schools from discriminating against viewpoints when allocating student fees to student groups. The bill, which applies to all publicly funded institutions of higher education in the state, received unanimous support in the Senate and was ratified by 85-7 in the House.)

“There are a couple of different facets of free speech issues on campuses. One, there is a widespread perception that speakers are being shouted down or being disinvited from campuses. I think by and large that’s overstated.

“Most of the significant disruption is occurring on a handful of high visibility campuses, and if you look across Tennessee there’s no pattern of censorship of controversial speakers or the shutting down of speakers. Most universities’ primary goal is to give students a good education so they can get jobs.

“This is not the Sixties, for better or worse. So, when I say you need education, not legislation, it’s really about making sure that students understand the value of the marketplace of ideas. And we do a poor job in American schools of conveying that. We all have a right to free speech, but we are a richer nation if we also listen to each other. That’s the way the system is supposed to work.

“So, to the extent that there are issues of intolerance on college campuses, particularly by students, that is best addressed by teaching about the First Amendment in our primary grades. So that’s Part 1.

“The broader issue addressed by the Tennessee legislation is largely institutional. It is about campuses where they may be leery of bringing a controversial speaker on campus because of possible disruption.

“They may have very specific places in which you can demonstrate and protest, and you can have an atmosphere in which people feel reluctant to speak out because they either have a minority viewpoint or because they have a sense that those in charge would disapprove. Those are the circumstances that are being addressed in the Tennessee legislation.’’

So, was the Tennessee legislation a solution looking for a problem?

“There is nothing troubling about the Tennessee legislation. It is largely a statement of how the First Amendment should work in American society and it’s largely on the money.

“There are a few things that give me pause. One is that it really does try to limit the academic freedom of professors in the classroom so that they can only speak about things that are absolutely germane to their topic.

“I think they are trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist and, in the process, they are limiting free speech of American citizens. But by and large, it’s a statement of vision and purpose, and every state university in the state of Tennessee and every university in the country should be reminded from time to time of what James Madison had in mind.

“It should be a reminder to college administrators and legislators alike that students are citizens, students and faculty are citizens, and they don’t lose their right to express themselves just because they are on a college campus.

“The other legislation that’s gaining ground across the country tries to force universities to punish students for disrupting speeches. That is an example of a solution looking for a problem. The Tennessee law is very broad and very much a statement of the value of the First Amendment.

“There are some genuine problems on Tennessee campuses involving free speech codes and the attempt to cordon off free speech. So, to that extent the Tennessee law is helpful. I can only hope the legislators take heed of their own words and leave Sex Week alone at the University of Tennessee. It would be absolutely hypocritical of them to sign off on this legislation and criticize Sex Week.”

A recent survey found that Americans largely support the press as a government watchdog – but only a third of respondents knew that a free press is protected in the First Amendment. Should that be a core part of the college curriculum?

“I think it would be more important to deliver that in the fourth grade. It’s not at all controversial. We tell kids about the Mayflower but forget to tell them about the founding principles of the American system. Our jobs as educators are to give students the opportunity to learn and become, in time, great professionals. We have a similar obligation to help them become great citizens.

“It’s a major problem for the entire country. Somewhere over time we have lost sight of the need to teach civics. Every student can recite the Pledge of Allegiance, but only 2 percent of Americans can name the five freedoms of the First Amendment and a third of Americans cannot name one single freedom. They are at the very fiber of what we are as a nation and who we are as a people, and it’s appalling and disgraceful that we are so constitutionally illiterate.

“We have to turn this around as a country. This needs to be addressed in grade school and high school before they step on a college campus. Then those of us on college campuses need to reinforce those lessons in a more sophisticated way than they might have learned in grade school.

“There’s no nation on the planet with the same range of freedom of expression that we have and that is truly what makes America great. We just have to remember that.”

College students have been criticized for being overly sensitive and thin-skinned. Do you see that on campus?

“I don’t see a lot of students being terribly thin-skinned or overly sensitive. I do see a surprisingly high level of confidence that doesn’t always translate into talent. I would also say this is what I call the Google generation. My students were born at the same time Google was rolled out, and they have a sense that they don’t actually need to memorize facts because they can always look them up.

“But if you don’t actually memorize things you can’t incorporate that information into your critical thinking. You don’t have to give a lot of thought to content if your first line of defense is, ‘I’ll just check my phone.’ It’s hard to make connections between facts if those facts are not part of your personal brainpower.

“I also see this as a terribly distracted generation with surprisingly little interest in current events and, in part, that is because we are not teaching civics and explaining the stakes. Every generation is different, and this one is no better or worse than previous generations. It is just different, and that includes a high-level of confidence, a real tendency toward multitasking, and a troubling lack of focus.

“I think the traits I see in students at MTSU, which are both noble and disappointing, can be found in 18- to 22-year-olds whether or not they are on campus. That’s why I think that so many of the discussions about free speech on campus are red herrings.

“What is your level of tolerance and mutual respect when you’re sitting in a bar on a Friday night if you’re not a member of a college community? I would bet they’re very similar. I don’t think college transforms values in ways that people assume they do.”

Another side of free speech is media literacy – the ability to evaluate the information that comes your way for its credibility. Is that taught at MTSU?

“There’s nothing widespread on the university campus, but we are developing a new first-year course for all of our students that goes back to the basics. We are trying to boost writing and critical thinking and an understanding of civics. It’s giving our students a head start on university life but also reminding them of the core elements of a good education. So that is in play.

“I’m a broken record on this, but I think media literacy is best taught in high schools. By the time you are an adult, the whole issue of fake news really shouldn’t be a problem. If you think at all critically, you can tell the difference between a real story and something posted from a non-existent news organization full of venom and clearly false statements.

“It’s astonishing to me that so-called “fake news” is a problem in American society. We must be a much more gullible country than I thought we were. It shouldn’t take a college course, just a willingness to look at details and treat information with a reasonably skeptical eye.

“What you see on Facebook and other social media platforms is not news in any form. It’s simply fraudulent content. I think we give it too much dignity when we use the word news in conjunction with it. It’s lies and we should all call it lies. The volume of lies on the internet is unprecedented today, and it is not being offset by people reading substantive news reports. People are not willing to invest in the real thing, and that is damaging to democracy.

“Most news organizations still do a good job of reporting the news fairly and fully, but Americans don’t want to invest in getting smarter.’’

You have plans to expand First Amendment programs and make MTSU the leading academic center for education and advocacy. What do they include?

“If you go to mtsu.edu/first-amendment, it’ll take you to our First Amendment Encyclopedia at MTSU. It has almost 2,000 updated articles about the First Amendment – things like hate speech and libel and slander and privacy. It’s all in there. And on top of the page there is a link that says ‘1 for All.’ It stands for one amendment that serves all Americans.

“It is a non-partisan and non-profit campaign to build public awareness of our First Amendment freedoms on college campuses, in high schools and across the country. ‘1 for All’ was born in 2007 when I was editor of USA Today. I thought that might give me some convening power, so I gathered a cross section of educators and First Amendment lawyers and experts and artists and librarians, and together we crafted a strategy to market the First Amendment back to the American people.

"If you click on ‘1 for All,’ you’ll see all the things we’ve done since 2007. It’s really been quite ambitious. We’ve given scholarships, we’ve had competitions on Twitter and Instagram, we’ve had celebrity endorsements from people like Brad Paisley and Ellen DeGeneres, and we have gone to college campuses all across the country and held First Amendment festivals so that an entire campus is engaged with the First Amendment for a day or two each year.

“The national campaign is the longest running, and I take it with me wherever I go, so MTSU has now adopted it. Right now, we are providing grants to college campuses all across the country to stage First Amendment events with money I raise from other foundations.

“That is where I believe America needs to make its greatest inroads. We need to find creative ways to remind young people of the value of the First Amendment and of listening respectfully to others. Freedom of speech only works if we can share ideas with each other. Hearing ourselves spout our own ideas doesn’t move the ball forward.

“So, both of those things, the First Amendment Encyclopedia and ‘1 for All,’ are examples of our growing initiatives at MTSU to educate students and the public about the First Amendment.

Aside from you being there, what makes MTSU the best place for a center of First Amendment research as opposed to Vanderbilt, which physically houses the First Amendment Center in Nashville?

“I believe that MTSU is a logical place to emphasize First Amendment studies. It’s where the John Seigenthaler Chair for Excellence in First Amendment Studies is located. And our First Amendment Encyclopedia is the most comprehensive resource on the First Amendment online, anywhere in the world. We hope to make MTSU a significant center for thought and research surrounding the First Amendment, and we will do that in a non-partisan and wholly educational way.

“I retire from the First Amendment Center in December, and that center has done great work for a very long time. It’s an age and contractual thing – I signed a contract there a decade ago – so part of this is I’m looking for another outlet for the First Amendment research I do.

“I would never suggest that it supplants anyone else or replaces anyone else; it’s just that we want to approach things in a scholarly, educational manner here at MTSU, and it’s a logical area for us to expand. This is not replacing anything else. We’re just doing something different.

You have been at MTSU for more than five years during a time when it has gained significant momentum as a university. What accounts for its growth?

“I would not have been interested in becoming the dean at any other college in Tennessee. It’s a truly vibrant place. There is a vibe that encourages entrepreneurship and reinvention. And we’ve really done that here in our college. We were the College of Mass Communication, which meant nothing to 18 year olds, and we are now the College of Media and Entertainment.

“In recent years, we’ve been the fastest growing college at the university, and it’s in part because we have a green light to experiment and try new things. We have a partnership with Bonnaroo. We take our students to the Grammys.

“I like being here because every year I say, “Here are the four things we want to accomplish” and we get down and do it. There’s no talk of “Little Middle” anymore.

“In the coming year, we intend to establish a campus of sorts in Los Angeles called MTSU-LA and that will be largely during the summer. We’ve got other things like that planned, so the walls keep coming down. And students keep enrolling, so we’re grateful for that.’’

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