The First Amendment: What It Means and Why It's on an SBU Wall


Journalism faculty and students need to rest once in a while. And since the start of the spring 2016 semester, they can do so in the new lounge on the second floor of the John J. Murphy Professional Building, where the First Amendment is lettered on one wall:

“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 First Amendment gives journalists the right to do what they do. Below, alumni of the St. Bonaventure University journalism program offer their reflections on what the First Amendment means to them.

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Bob McCarthy, class of 1976, political reporter for the Buffalo News:

“Every day in my job…I ask questions that may irritate politicians or public officials. But in this country, we have the right to irritate those who are responsible to its citizens. And I can do it without fear of retribution. There may be no more basic freedom.”


Dan Barry, class of 1980, author and columnist for the New York Times:

“I am both a journalist and an American citizen, so the First Amendment shapes nearly every hour of the day. In protecting the freedom of the press, it allows me to pursue my profession—the seeking of truth, the telling of stories, the holding accountable of the powerful—without fear of censorship, or prior restraint, or worse.

"But its other protections, including those of speech, of religion, of peaceful assembly, allow me to read what I wish to read, whether Huckleberry Finn or an Archie comic; worship Jesus Christ, Buddha, or a pumpkin; gather outside the White House or Hopkins Hall with a placard that says ‘Down With All Tyrants.’ It’s the whole package that makes me glad to go to the newsroom each morning and to tuck my children into bed each night. I feel protected.”


Rachel Axon, class of 2006, investigative sports reporter for USA Today:

“The First Amendment to me is the right and license that allows journalists to be a watchdog of our government and public institutions. A democracy simply cannot function without a free press, without its citizens being aware of what is being done with their tax money and in their name.”


Lee Coppola, class of 1964, former dean of Russell J. Jandoli School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and contributor for the Buffalo News:

“It gives journalists the opportunity to put into print or into words the information that they gather and the information that is certainly necessary for readers and listeners and viewers to obtain.

"You look at that amendment and you think, ‘My God, what a wonderful democracy this is,’ because those kinds of values certainly aren’t available in many parts of the world.”


Carole McNall, class of 1975, assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at St. Bonaventure University:

“People who know my background—journalist and lawyer—are never surprised that the First Amendment matters to me. But over the years, I’ve also come to see the First as a reminder—a reminder that if I believe in the rights it guarantees (perhaps especially speech and the press) those rights apply to all speech, including speech from people who strike me as crackpots. I may not want to hear what they say, but a government which could tell them “shut up!” could tell me the same thing.”


David Bohrer, class of 1977, recently retired from Gannett in central New York State:

“If we believe in democracy, the First Amendment is crucial to finding a just path for our nation. Democracy means we have the responsibility to take ownership in our government. We believe that in order for truth to emerge, all ideas must be communicated freely. If we silence the smallest of our voices, we can’t be sure that we’ll follow that just path.

"The First Amendment also means that government must be conducted in the open so the public can know that our leaders are following the will of the majority. That can get messy when the majority, at a certain time, may not have the most noble sense of truth—for example, all are created equal except those of another race or religious belief.

"But that’s where our job as journalists comes in, to ask on behalf of all citizens the questions that expose all ideas. And then we take a leap of faith that the best ideas emerge and the people, our leaders, act with justice for all of us.

"That’s important and meaningful work, which has been a great motivator over the years. I wouldn’t have wanted another career.”


Samantha Berkhead, class of 2014, English and Engagement Editor for International Center for Journalists:

“Looking back, I can see ties between the First Amendment and the Franciscan ideals that every Bonaventure student is taught. Both, in a way, signify the dignity of human thought and expression—that every voice is valid and deserves to be heard, even if you don't personally approve of what that voice is saying. While it's true that some words and images can harm others, I think the majority of press suppression worldwide isn't actually aimed at controlling this damaging speech.

"Because I work at an international journalism nonprofit, I regularly interview journalists who face unthinkable working conditions in their home countries. These journalists don't have the luxury of a constitutional guarantee of free speech or free press, let alone a guarantee of safety. Hearing them recount their experiences reinforces how precious the First Amendment really is.

"It can be easy to take our right to free speech for granted, especially during our time in the Bona Bubble -- but I think it's every journalist's responsibility to not only exercise our own right to free expression, but defend others' right to free speech as well. This includes making space for underrepresented voices in the media and taking steps to prevent harassment and violence toward journalists.”


Michael Farrell, class of 2000, author and freelance music and nightlife reporter in Buffalo:

"Freedom of speech and the ability to express or relay informed opinions in print give writers a voice. It's not just the words; it's the style and structure of message we're able to pursue under the protection of the First Amendment that eventually form our identities as journalists and writers. Without this freedom, we'd all be cast in the same mold, restricted from reporting from the variety of viewpoints that makes the role of the media so integral in our society."


J.P. Butler, class of 2007, sports writer for the Olean Times Herald:

“As a small-town sportswriter, I feel as though the First Amendment, in practice, doesn't have all that great a day-to-day impact on me and what I do. In my time at the Olean Times Herald, I haven't had to refer to it, or apply it, the way other journalists might have to.

"An example that comes to mind is the November student protests at the University of Missouri, in which a student reporter asserted his First Amendment right to take pictures of the event, despite, oddly enough, a journalism professor's attempt to curtail him. In that situation, the need for such an amendment to fall back on was important.

Having said that, the First Amendment, even to someone in my situation, is, at the very least, peace of mind, which is key when trying to do a very public job fairly and accurately, and, at times, in trying circumstances. It's peace of mind, for me, to know that my opinions, ideas and other forms of work cannot be infringed upon, or that, perhaps more commonly, there can be no ‘prior restraining’ of my work before it appears, something that would apply not only to our government but also an institution such as the St. Bonaventure athletic department, which may not always like what I have to say about the basketball team.

"For me, its appearance in the new lounge in the John J. Murphy Professional Building (which I'll have to check out sometime) is important for two reasons: One, it serves as a reminder to up-and-coming journalists that there are (or are supposed to be) rules that will protect them from such infringement, and they can therefore feel free to pursue the profession the way he or she wants; and two, it never hurts to bring an educational aspect to a room on campus. By the time they graduate, most current JMC undergrads should have no problem understanding what the First Amendment really means!” 


Lisa Robert Lewis, Class of 1976, former editor of The Record in Troy, The Saratogian in Saratoga Springs and the Community News, a weekly in Clifton Park, and their affiliated websites and social media platforms:

“In recent years, after the attacks of 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombing, questions have been raised about whether the First Amendment has gone too far in supporting a free media and its use of social media and graphic images during times of crisis. To this nation’s credit, three-quarters of Americans support the First Amendment, according to a July 2015 report by the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center in partnership with USA Today.

“The discussion, however, raises questions that today’s journalist must grapple with daily: the public’s right to know vs. keeping our nation safe. This is a discussion happening in newsrooms both large and small, including The Record.

“In recent years, the newspapers in the Capital Region of upstate New York banded together and went to court to fight for the release of information that we thought our readers deserved to know following the arrest of two men who were members of an Albany mosque on terrorism charges despite the government’s best efforts to keep the information sealed.

“Within the past few years, a Record reporter and photographer found themselves in a difficult situation where they went to check out suspicious activity in an abandoned garage and it turned out to be one of the last stages of an FBI sting that resulted in the arrest of two area men on terrorism charges for allegedly developing a weapon that could be used in attacks. A man who later revealed himself to be an FBI agent involved in the probe repeatedly cautioned us to be careful about what we reported about the incident so we did not damage his agency’s investigation. A lot of discussion and checking and rechecking facts happened that night before the story was published.

“Suffice to say, the First Amendment is a living, breathing document for me and my fellow journalists, and I am proud that my alma mater has painted it on the wall of the new lounge in the John J.  Murphy Professional Building. I view it as a fitting tribute to all those who have benefited from this university mass communications program and all of those to come.”

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