From the Colonists to Kaepernick--NYU’s “First Amendment Watch” on the History of Symbolic Protest


Newswise — NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute’s First Amendment Watch, an online resource offering coverage and context to the debate over freedom of expression, explores the history of symbolic protest with “From Liberty Tree to Taking a Knee: America’s Founding Era Sheds Light on the NFL Controversy.”      

While much of today’s symbolic protest stems from the actions of Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback who played for the San Francisco 49ers in 2016, First Amendment Watch notes that this form of expression goes back to colonial protests against the British.

“Symbolic speech as a form of protest, like taking a knee at a football game while others stand for the National Anthem, enjoys a long history in America,” First Amendment Watch observes. “It’s been a powerful form of political expression going back to the protests in the colonies in the 1760s against British oppression. Various forms of symbolic expression—liberty trees, liberty poles, effigies of hated politicians, even the use of the number 45—brought multitudes into the political sphere and was critical in building opposition to British rule.” 

The site, firstamendmentwatch.org, also includes other resources on this issue, including comprehensive coverage of the news since September, tweets from President Trump and others, opinion pieces across the spectrum, and a listing of relevant legal cases.

Launched last fall, First Amendment Watch tracks contemporary threats to the freedoms of speech, press, assembly, and petition, posting stories as they arise, along with related content to better inform the conversation. Through daily updates, analysis, access to relevant legal cases, and historical background, First Amendment Watch includes extensive resources for educators, journalists, and a thoughtful public eager to keep up with current controversies and understand how First Amendment principles apply to them. 

Stephen Solomon, a professor at the Carter Journalism Institute, is the site’s founding editor and Tatiana Serafin, a contributing editor to Forbes, is its managing editor.

Since its launch, First Amendment Watch (FAW) has provided context for many contentious issues—it is following current Supreme Court First Amendment cases, including the Masterpiece Cake case, as well as tracking the current controversies over hate speech on college campuses. In addition, in conjunction with the release of “The Post,” starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, it took a close look at the Pentagon Papers, whose publication led to a press crisis culminating in a landmark 1971 Supreme Court decision. The site’s goal is to create shared learning and engage readers in understanding how to protect their First Amendment rights.

Recently, FAW established a partnership with the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center and added additional sections: book excerpts from leading First Amendment authors and excerpts from historical documents defending the First Amendment.           

Solomon, who teaches First Amendment law at the Carter Journalism Institute, authored Revolutionary Dissent: How the Founding Generation Created the Freedom of Speech (St. Martin’s Press, 2016), which explored the birth of freedom of expression in America’s founding period, as well as Ellery’s Protest: How One Young Man Defied Tradition and Sparked the Battle Over School Prayer (University of Michigan Press, 2009), which chronicled the controversial Supreme Court case that ended state-sponsored prayer and Bible reading in the public schools. He is one of the panel of 15 experts who contribute to the quarterly report card on the state of the First Amendment produced by the Newseum Institute.

Serafin, an adjunct professor of journalism at Marymount Manhattan College, has covered issues of press freedom for various publications, including “I, Journalist,” for the Seventh Wave. She was previously a staff writer at Forbes and then co-editor of the magazine’s billionaires list, initiating coverage of billionaires in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

 

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