By Heather Black/The Siskiyou
Left to right: Paul Steinle, Ronald Collins, Laura Sellers, Ben Sherman and Dennis Dunleavy discuss the impacts of citizen journalism on society.
The Thomas Pyle First Amendment Forum shed light on the current state of the right to free speech as well as highlighted examples of citizen journalism in Oregon.
The keynote speaker Ronald K.L. Collins addressed more than 100 Southern Oregon University students, faculty and community members Wednesday, Jan. 16 at 7 p.m. in the Rogue River room of the Stevenson Union on the SOU campus. His speech focused on current issues surrounding the First Amendment. While Collins started the event by discussing the bigger national picture, the panel discussion that followed focused on citizen or community journalism.
"In many respects ours is a culture of freedom. And I for one welcome the opportunity to rejoice and celebrate that culture," said Collins.
Although his words are optimistic, he began his speech discussing his colleague Anthony Lewis and his new book "Freedom for the Thought We Hate." In a virtual debate with Lewis, Collins posed a series of questions centering on governmental encroachment of free expression. Through his questions Collins drew attention to First Amendment violations including legislative actions to abridge the freedom of political speech, to limit public information, to abridge the free speech rights of high school students, and to fine newspapers for critical statements of public officials.
Collins proceeded to discuss potential violations in 2008. His predictions for the New Year included the implications of electronic literature and a new device called the Kindle, developed by Jeff Bezos that can store a complete set of library books electronically.
"I assume a teenager somewhere will download something that upsets some righteous soul somewhere. In time the Federal Communications will come on its white horse and deem that it is important to only regulate cable and satellite but also electric books," said Collins.
The lecture then turned to the West Borough Baptist Church, which believes that the death of soldiers in Iraq is God punishing America for the existence and acceptance of homosexuals. The members stage peaceful protests near soldiersí funerals to express their views.
"I think itís wrong. I think itís cruel. I think itís offensive. I think itís heartless. And I think it should be tolerated," said Collins about the West Borough Baptist Church membersí right to free expression. The families of soldiers have filed suit and won $10 million from the church, citing extreme emotional distress.
"If the people from the West Borough Baptist Church can be silenced with $10 million lawsuits and criminal prosecution, it is only a matter of time before people protesting a good distance lawfully at abortion clinics will be slapped with $10 million lawsuits," Collins said, his warnings extending to other peaceful protests including union strikes.
"If the First Amendment doesnít protect the offensive, we wouldnít need it," said Collins.
After the keynote address, the forum then turned to a panel discussion of citizen journalism.
The panel included Collins, Laura Sellers, Ben Sherman and Dennis Dunleavy, while Paul Steinle introduced the speakers and directed the conversation.
"Think of our responsibilities as storytellers in our communities as to define who we are in our text, our discourse and our images," said Dunleavy in response to citizen journalism emerging as a trend of news gathering and reporting.
"The idea being this was your neighborhood, your town, your life. It should be your stories, your photos," said Sellers describing the basis for seaside-sun.com which uses images, blogs and articles to reflect Seaside, Ore., on the World Wide Web.
Because the Web site has become so popular in the Seaside community of roughly 4,000 year-round residents, the siteís parent company East Oregonian Publishing Co. plans to develop similar Web sites for other communities.
While seaside-sun.com serves one community, oregonlive.com, an affiliate of The Oregonian, serves greater Oregon.
"We have all the Oregonianís content on our site. Then right along side, we have all content from the community," said Sherman. Oregonlive.com is built around Web forums that are largely unfiltered with blogs introduced five years ago.
"Nothing was being edited; everything was going straight to the website," said Sherman. "You really have to trust your community."
"We have the stories mixed together, so we donít segregate," said Sellers in reference to the Seaside Web site. She and Shermanís approach to organizing their Web sites mirrors Sellersí attitude toward community journalism.
"The bloggers and the journalists have to learn to play nice together," said Sellers. "We have a bigger story to tell."