Ken Paulson is director of the Free Speech Center, former dean of the College of Media and Entertainment at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) and former editor-in-chief of USA Today, where he remains a columnist writing about First Amendment and media issues.

He is the host of “The Songwriters,” a television show on PBS, featuring interviews with Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame inductees. Paulson is a board member of the Hall of Fame.

Paulson’s areas of expertise include:

The First Amendment
Paulson founded the Free Speech Center at MTSU in 2019. He was executive director of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University and served as the center’s president and CEO before that. Paulson speaks widely on First Amendment issues and has been quoted extensively in media outlets including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA TODAY, ESPN, CBS Evening News and Newsweek.
Paulson has testified before Congress as a First Amendment expert. He has a juris doctorate and is a member of both the Illinois and Florida bars.

Paulson was the host of the Emmy-honored television PBS program "Speaking Freely.," As the author of "Freedom Sings," he created a multimedia show celebrating the First Amendment that has toured campuses for the past 20 years. His “The Bill of Rights: The Remix” has been in residency at the Country Music Hall of Fame since 2017.

Paulson teaches Mass Media Law and Free Expression, the Media and the American People at MTSU.

Throughout his career, Paulson has drawn on his background as a journalist and lawyer, serving as editor or managing editor of newspapers in five states.
He was on the team of journalists who founded USA Today before moving on to manage newsrooms in N.Y., Wis., N.J., Fla., and finally USA TODAY.

He and his colleague John Seigenthaler spoke to more than 5,000 journalists and media professionals about the importance of a free press.

Popular Music
Paulson has written professionally about music over four decades, beginning at the Chicago-based Environs Magazine. He currently hosts the NPT show “The Songwriters” as well as the “Americana One” radio show and podcast. He created “Music Matters,” a radio feature that celebrates songs with impact.

Paulson is a member of MTSU’s Recording Industry faculty and teaches History of the Recording Industry.

Paulson is a member of the Tennessee Entertainment Commission and a former member of The Mayor’s Music Council in Nashville.

He was named fellow of the Society of Professional Journalists, "the highest honor SPJ bestows upon a journalist for extraordinary contributions to the profession." He has received the Robert S. Abbott Memorial Award for Meritorious Service in Mass Communications from the Southern Regional Press Institute. He was elected to the University of Illinois’ Illini Publishing Hall of Fame.

Paulson was honored with the American Press Institute Lifetime Service Award.

He has received the Missouri Honor Medal for Distinguished Service in Journalism. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois College of Law and the University of Missouri School of Journalism.


Cited By


MTSU Free Speech Center, Poynter Institute Collaborate on First Amendment Education

The initiative, which combines the Poynter Institute’s “Press Pass” program with the Free Speech Center’s “Lessons in Liberty,” will give educators timely and interactive classroom exercises designed to illuminate freedom of speech and press for the next generation of citizens.
09-Aug-2021 04:30:57 PM EDT

"Supreme Court backs cursing cheerleader, but it's a narrow ruling," explains @KenPaulson1, director of @FreeSpeechMTSU.

The Court's 8-1 ruling in favor of a disgruntled high school cheerleader had the potential to either expand the free-rights of public school students or limit them. It did neither.
23-Jun-2021 02:25:07 PM EDT

@FreeSpeechCenter director @KenPaulson1 explains why @SunshineWeek is more important than ever

The need to fight for government transparency is reaffirmed each year during SunshineWeek, a national awareness event overseen by the News Leaders Association
16-Mar-2021 08:20:07 AM EDT

@FreeSpeechMTSU director @KenPaulson1 reflects on @ImLarryFlynt's outrageous, abrasive and effective defense of free speech

Larry Flynt, the founder and publisher of Hustler magazine who died Wednesday, was particularly prominent in his assertion of First Amendment rights. From the very beginning of his career as a pornographer, Flynt enlisted legal support to stay in business. Over time, he became highly knowledgeable about the First Amendment and took a groundbreaking case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
12-Feb-2021 11:40:11 AM EST

First Amendment not at heart of impeachment trial

@FreeSpeechMTSU director @kenpaulson1 says 1st Amendment can make for lofty arguments, but it’s not at the heart of Trump impeachment.
05-Feb-2021 11:05:12 AM EST

MTSU Free Speech Center’s new First Amendment report offers ‘creative ways’ to reach college students

"Learning About Liberty: Facilitating First Amendment Engagement Among American University Students" is a new report by the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University that finds that college students don’t know much about their First Amendment freedoms, but their professors can help address that gap.
04-Feb-2021 03:50:30 PM EST

@MTSU @1stAmendmentCtr @KenPaulson1: When Barricades fell, so did #FirstAmendment protection

When Barricades fell, so did First Amendment protection
06-Jan-2021 06:05:53 PM EST

Nashville artists, authors, athletes speak up for First Amendment with MTSU Free Speech Center’s 1 for All awareness effort

Using a host of diverse voices, the awareness campaign seeks to help more citizens better understand all of their five freedoms under the First Amendment as protests continue across the country against racial injustice.
25-Jun-2020 02:35:48 PM EDT

USA TODAY Founder Al Neuharth was a brilliant news executive, but he had his quirks. Proud of his South Dakota roots, he had something of a chip on his shoulder, disdaining East Coast elites and daring them to mock his unconventional ideas. In 1982, he launched USA TODAY, a colorful newspaper filled with concise stories and groundbreaking graphics. Early critics derided it as a “comic book” or “McPaper.” Neuharth loved it.

- Former editor of USA TODAY: A reflection on the Newseum's impact as it closes its doors

“There is no faster way to bring public support than to pursue military action,” said Ken Paulson, head of the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center. “It’s a pattern not only in American history, but in world history. We rally around the commander in chief — and that’s understandable.” Paulson noted that the news media also “seem to get bored with their own narrative” about Trump’s failings, and they welcome a chance to switch it up. But that’s not good enough, he said: “The watchdog has to have clear vision and not just a sporadic bark.”

- The media loved Trump’s show of military might. Are we really doing this again?

Ken Paulson, president of the Newseum's First Amendment Center and dean of media studies at Middle Tennessee State University, said CNN and other news organizations should hang tough. "The core principle of a free press is that the government can't be allowed to decide who keeps an eye on it," Paulson said. "If Jim Acosta is out, CNN should send a similarly persistent reporter and spend that much more time digging for information outside the White House walls."

- Trump war on media takes tense turn with CNN reporter banned

Ken Paulson, president of the Newseum's First Amendment Center and dean of media studies at Middle Tennessee State University, said CNN and other news organizations should hang tough. "The core principle of a free press is that the government can't be allowed to decide who keeps an eye on it," Paulson said. "If Jim Acosta is out, CNN should send a similarly persistent reporter and spend that much more time digging for information outside the White House walls."

- Fight fake news with the real thing

Imagine if President Trump publicly denounced men and women of the clergy as “disturbed” people who don’t love God. The outcry would be deafening; I’m confident that faith leaders throughout the country would pray even harder. Or consider if the president denounced law-abiding gun-owners as “pathetic” and questioned their loyalty to their communities. Outrage would ignite, and gun owners would exercise their Second Amendment rights with vigor, buying more guns. Yet Trump’s denouncement of the news media as “sick people" who don’t even like their country rolled off his tongue. And just as faith leaders and gun owners fight back if their rights are threatened, journalists have done the same with remarkably aggressive coverage of the president throughout his term so far. That's not a surprise. Good journalists are trained to pursue conflicts of interest, misleading statements and abuses of the public trust.

- The news media does not hate America

President Donald Trump is violating the First Amendment by blocking Twitter users who criticize and mock him, according to a letter sent to him by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. Trump’s verified Twitter account is a designated public forum, and the First Amendment bars the government from excluding people based on their views, according to an institute press release. The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have stories. The letter asks Trump to unblock the Twitter users so they can view his tweets and comment. The letter is signed by three lawyers who represent two blocked users

- Blocked Trump Twitter followers claim First Amendment violation

First Amendment Center President Ken Paulson provides analysis of the case, noting that the opinion reaffirms that sexual content and violent content are viewed differently by the court, that entertainment is protected by the First Amendment, and that “states can’t target emerging media,” such as video games. “Overall, the Supreme Court’s ruling is a vibrant application of 219-year-old principles to cutting-edge technology and asserts that any new forms of communication or media to come will be protected by the First Amendment,” Paulson writes.

- Court Strikes Down Ban on Sale of Violent Video Games to Minors

Paulson said while he has seen “widely distributed news stories about students shouting down speakers, or college administrators engaging in heavy-handed tactics,” he doesn’t feel such tactics are prevalent at most campuses. “I honestly don’t believe there’s an epidemic of suppression or intolerance in the nation’s universities,” he said. Rather, Paulson said, most students are concerned about “paying for school, staying in school and making good enough grades to get a job when they leave.” He added, “That’s a dynamic you’ll find at universities all over America.” However, Paulson said there are indisputably “some high-profile instances where college administrators and students are willing to bend free speech principles to prevent hurt feelings or ideological conflict.” “Somewhere, over the past two decades, the land of the free has become the home of the easily offended,” Paulson said. “There are some who see free speech infractions and ask for Congress to do something. But with all due respect, this is not about legislation. It’s about education.

- Ken Paulson testifies before Congress

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