Jenner & Block

Berman, Panelists Address Wartime Limitations on Citizens’ Free Speech

Partner Debbie L. Berman recently joined several journalists and educators in a panel discussion addressing the invariable tension, especially in the name of national security, between the public’s right to free speech and the government’s right to place reasonable limits on that Constitutional right.
The April 12 forum at Robert Morris College entitled, "Freedom of Speech: But Watch Your Mouth," was sponsored by the Eagle student newspaper at Robert Morris, and was attended by close to 50 students.

Serving with Ms. Berman on the First Amendment discussion were Bernard M. Judge, Editor and Vice President of Law Bulletin Publishing Company; Phil Kadner, Columnist at the Daily Southtown; and Jane Mueller Ungari, a writing instructor at the college. Rick Kogan of WGN Radio 720 served as moderator.

"I think the First Amendment is under assault today," said Ms. Berman, a member of Jenner & Block’s Media and First Amendment Practice and Co-Chair of the Firm’s Trade Secrets and Unfair Competition Practice. Because of the recent passage of the Patriot Act, which gave broader powers of the government to obtain information on patrons’ library activities, she explained, "someone can go to the library or to the university bookstore to get a book, and the government could [essentially] be there right behind him."

Ms. Berman also warned that such potential erosions of our First Amendment rights is often a "slippery slope…If something is deemed offensive," she posited, "where do we draw the line? Who is to say what is or isn’t acceptable?"

Mr. Judge observed that the First Amendment and its possible curtailment was not a topic that has been in the media, the expected reporter on government activity, as much as it should be. Nor has this important issue apparently been on young peoples’ minds as might be expected, he said, in apparent reference to earlier generations of students who have been more outspoken on the preservation of Constitutional rights.

The Editor and Publisher of the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin and Chicago Lawyer magazine opined that, "very few students know much about freedom of speech because they haven’t had the issue directly affect them yet."

Columnist Phil Kadner urged the students in attendance not to underestimate their abilities to make a difference and to use the power of the pen to fend off any unreasonable limits placed upon free speech. "If you don’t like the way things are in the world," he said, "go out there and change it."

When one student in attendance voiced concern that her opinion was just one of many in the world, Ms. Ungari urged the students to help protect their basic rights to free speech by writing their representatives in Congress and exercising their right to vote. The power of one’s vote, she said, "can’t be underestimated."

Ms. Berman concluded that American citizens in today’s "wartime" climate are being asked to cede more of their rights than usual by such new laws as the Patriot Act --"unfortunately, people don’t realize their rights are being whittled away little by little."