Fifty students at Yale University, one of the country’s elite schools of higher learning, recently signed a petition to scrap the First Amendment.
The incident was reminiscent of one played out in Madison more than 50 years ago when a Capital Times reporter found more than 100 people who refused to sign a petition with excerpts from the Declaration of Independence and the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights.
The First Amendment allows for freedom of speech, press and religion and the right of citizens to petition their government and to assemble to protest against or for government actions.
The Madison incident of people refusing to sign a petition quoting the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights occurred during the anti-communist movement led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. Only one person out of 112 people signed the document. Twenty of the people who refused to sign the petition accused the reporter of being a communist. Others said they feared retribution.
The latest assaults against First Amendment freedoms surfaced not only at Yale but at the University of Wisconsin, at the University of Missouri and in the presidential race.
Billionaire Donald Trump, during his campaign for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, suggested creating a database of American Muslims to identify them, something akin to requiring Jews during the Hitler regime to be identified by wearing a yellow Star of David patch on their clothing.
Mosques throughout the country also would be under surveillance as well as others to counter Islamic terrorists.
Arab Americans see the suggestion by Trump as a violation of their religious freedom.
During the height of protests in Madison against Gov. Scott Walker’s movement to curtail collective bargaining rights of public employees, speech rights were abridged when protesters were arrested for singing songs in the Capitol rotunda. Outside the Capitol thousands of protesters marched as they exercised their right to assemble.
Attempts by the Walker administration and the Republican Legislature in 2015 to thwart public records access in the state of Wisconsin threatened freedom of the press.
Most recently the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents voted to uphold academic freedom and free speech after UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank sent out a message that some believed undermined freedom of speech.
The action by the regents also followed incidents at the University of Missouri where students sought to keep a photographer from taking pictures during a protest on campus.
Students yelled, “Hey, hey, ho ho, reporters have to go.”
In an attempt to create awareness among college and high school students in Wisconsin of the First Amendment, the Madison chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists has named a writing competition after John Patrick Hunter, the Capital Times reporter who in 1951 went to Vilas Park with his petition. Hunter, who died in 2003 at age 87, worked for the Cap Times for 44 years.
Dave Zweifel, editor emeritus of The Capital Times, said naming the award after Hunter was most fitting.
“John believed strongly not just in its (Bill of Rights) guarantee of a free press, but in the protection of free speech, freedom of religion, the right of the people to peaceably assemble and the right to petition our government. He not only considered the First Amendment the cornerstone of American democracy, but he made use of it to keep the people informed,” Zweifel said.
Mark Pitsch, president of the Madison Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, said that “it’s critical in a representative democracy for people to understand the importance of the First Amendment and for young journalists to understand their rights and the rights of their fellow citizens.”
The student contest will end on April 30 and is open to the publication in student publications of stories and opinion columns related to the First Amendment. Entries should be sent to email@example.com.
Sam Martino, of McFarland, is retired after working as a journalism instructor at UW-Whitewater and a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists.
Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to firstname.lastname@example.org. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.