Constitution Day is Sept. 17
By Ted Petersen
The Florida Tech Crimson has hosted “Free Speech Day” for the past seven years. As Constitution Day approaches, other colleges might learn from the inexpensive and successful program at Florida Tech.
About six months into my role as adviser to the Crimson, the student-run newspaper at my private university, I learned something new—the Crimson is a free press.
I stumbled onto the document that governs student media at Florida Tech. It has an important sentence: “Freedom of the press, as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States, is not blocked or interfered with by Florida Tech or any of its trustees, administrators, faculty or staff.”
Armed with this new knowledge, I wanted the entire campus community to know what I knew. That desire birthed the first “Free Speech Day” at Florida Tech. It started small—“Free speech, free press, free cookies” was wall made of Home Depot plywood, some Sharpie markers, and a few dozen chocolate chip cookies. We leaned the wall against a building in the middle of campus and gave a cookie to anyone who wrote on the wall.
The wall quickly became a celebration of free expression. Some comments were inspirational, some critical of the university, some frustrating and disappointing.
We also had a panel of local lawyers and journalists talk about their experience using or defending the First Amendment. The event was funded by a CMA’s Ingelhart First Amendment grant.
The event has grown, now “Free Speech Week,” with a keynote address, several panels and workshops, free food festival inspired by CMA member Michael Koretzky, and of course the free speech wall.
At the beginning, I wanted the Florida Tech community to realize how valuable an editorially independent student newspaper is to the community. But in today’s “enemy of the people” environment, events like this are great reminders that not only is the press constitutionally protected, but serves as defender of democracy.
I hope more college newspapers buy $20-worth of plywood and a five-pack of markers, find a busy spot on campus, and promote the importance of a free press.
If you have any questions about what we do at Florida Tech, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ted Petersen is an associate professor of communication at Florida Tech in Melbourne, Florida. He advises the Florida Tech Crimson and teaches journalism and research methods courses. His Ph.D. is from the University of Florida in mass communication. His most recent research focuses on understanding the lived experiences journalists who cover tragedies and disasters.