Why Are We Talking About the
By Marybeth Reilly-McGreen
This year, URI kicks off the Taricani Lecture Series on First Amendment Rights, the legacy of the late Jim Taricani, Hon. ’18, and his wife, Laurie White ’81. Taricani was a champion of First Amendment rights, and White has made it her mission to keep his legacy alive. We asked other members of the URI community to share their stories about why the First Amendment matters. The result is a powerful collection of testaments to the importance of the freedoms protected by the amendment—religion, speech, press, and peaceful assembly.
The freedoms protected by the First Amendment are essential to democracy and to the mission and values of higher education—without the freedom to express and explore new, different, and sometimes controversial ideas, how would society evolve?
Colleges and universities have a responsibility to teach and embody the tolerance that allows for civil discourse. Controversy can arise when one person’s expression offends another. How do we manage that? How does the First Amendment work to advance scholarship and research across the disciplines?
The stories that follow are profiles in courage, integrity, and citizenship. They illustrate the importance of our freedom—and responsibility—to exercise our First Amendment rights.
Because Truth Matters
Bosnia was a different war.
“It was a different animal,” CNN chief international anchor and host of PBS’s Amanpour & Company Christiane Amanpour ’83, Hon. ’95, told a packed Edwards Auditorium last September at the annual lecture series bearing her name.
An animal hell-bent on annihilation.
Six months after the first Gulf War, Amanpour was covering the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia. “This was a civil war that was building to a genocide,” Amanpour said. “This was something that affected me personally.” Journalists are taught that objectivity is fairness, and that their reporting should reflect all viewpoints. But, in the case of the Bosnian genocide, practicing objectivity wasn’t necessarily getting to the truth, Amanpour discovered. “Be truthful, not neutral: I learned that in Sarajevo,” she said. It’s become her tagline.
“And it came about because we were telling the truth: stories of civilians—men, women, and children being brutalized, besieged by the Bosnian Serbs, and their patrons, the Serbs, who had the armor, the personnel, the agenda—and who wanted to ethnically cleanse parts of Bosnia to create a white, nationalist, Serb entity to carve off and attach as a greater Serbia. They thought this was their opportunity.”
World leaders did nothing, Amanpour said.
“Not the president of the United States, not the prime minister of Great Britain, nor the president of France. None of our democratic leaders wanted to follow their international duty under the Geneva Convention, which says when you see ethnic cleansing, genocide, deep violations of the most important international laws, you actually have to respond,” Amanpour said.
“It made me examine what I was doing and what we had to do as journalists. What I had done was tell the truth. When you get all sides of the story, you’re being objective. But when you then mistakenly believe that objectivity is neutrality, you create a false factual and false moral equivalence. In these situations, if you do that, you are an accomplice.”
—Christiane Amanpour ’83, Hon. ’95
But because the war happened in the era of 24/7 news, the world watched. “We didn’t just do one story. We did all the important stories for years,” Amanpour said. “Bosnia was the leading story around the world—in the United States, in Europe, and in Muslim countries—because it was Muslim civilians, European Muslims, who were being slaughtered like animals.”
CNN and Amanpour were accused of bias. “I was upset and I had to re-examine our golden rule, objectivity,” Amanpour told the audience. “It made me examine what I was doing and what we had to do as journalists. What I had done was tell the truth. When you get all sides of the story, you’re being objective. But when you then mistakenly believe that objectivity is neutrality, you create a false factual and false moral equivalence.
“In these situations, if you do that, you are an accomplice.”
Such situations underscore the value of the fourth estate, and, by association, the First Amendment, Amanpour said.
“We like to call ourselves the fourth estate. That’s not just a throwaway title. That means we are fundamental pillars of what creates and maintains a strong and robust democracy,” Amanpour said. “In countries where there is a strong journalistic profession, the countries are healthier.
“And in this world where information is one of the most important and valuable commodities, those who are the purveyors of the information, i.e., the journalists, have to continue to do that in an environment that is safe and free.”
Because Despots Must be Exposed
The Gambia. 2001. Beaten, bloody, and drifting in and out of consciousness, 21-year-old journalist Omar Bah ’10 lay curled in the fetal position, awaiting death in a cell so small he couldn’t stretch his legs. He had been writing articles criticizing the country’s dictator, Yahya Jammeh, when he was taken into custody by soldiers. Over the course of a day, Bah had been stabbed in the back with bayonets and his head bludgeoned with the butt of an AK-47. “They made a game of lifting me and throwing me in the air, and as I came down they kicked me and hit me with their gun butts,” Bah recalls.
The cell was dark, fetid, and so hot that Bah couldn’t tell if he was soaked in sweat or blood. Rats, geckos, and other lizards skittered across his body while mosquitoes fed on him.
“My bayonet wounds were deep and swelling,” Bah recalls. “Soldiers would look in and see if I was still alive, start kicking and hitting me, then leave and lock the door.
“I thought I was going to die.”
But people had witnessed the torture. “The soldiers did not care to hide what they were doing, because it was condoned,” Bah says.
After being held for the day, Bah was released because of public outcry—but that’s where the support ended in Jammeh’s Gambia. “You couldn’t say anything; you couldn’t do anything. No hospital would treat me; I was on my own.”
“I get very angry when I speak about it.”
Still, Bah returned to reporting. “I could not be quiet,” he says. In 2006, though, he received a tip that Jammeh’s men were coming for him again. Within hours Bah had fled his homeland for Senegal but was detained at the border by a soldier. Arms raised in surrender, Bah was horrified to see that the soldier was a childhood friend. His friend’s face registered a similar surprise and horror. Then, a moment of grace. The friend let him go and likely saved Bah’s life. Bah arrived in Rhode Island a year later and became a United States citizen in 2012.
“Now I can say whatever I want without having to look over my shoulder,” says Bah. “I think about it every day.”
In 2010, Bah earned his bachelor’s in communication studies from URI and in 2015 opened the Refugee Dream Center. It serves about 300 people a year and is “meant to empower and lift them to have a voice,” Bah says. Refugees are offered help finding housing, jobs, trauma counseling, and health care. “The second part of the mission is advocacy. It’s a lot of work but very rewarding,” Bah says.
Bah now lives in South Providence with his wife and two young sons. He will earn his Ph.D. in June. Having grown up in a mud hut in a village where women carried water in jars on their heads and the village ambulance was a donkey cart, Bah is intent on teaching his children that opportunity is possible in his adopted country. “They know they are lucky to live in a country where they are not afraid to speak up and enjoy freedoms of every kind,” he says.
“I want to live a life of example to them—one in which education is highly valued.”
Bah’s younger boy is interested in social justice. “When we’re in the car, my son makes me stop when he sees a homeless person. He gives all of his money to the homeless,” Bah says. “Those actions make me cherish freedom even more. It is a gift and an opportunity to make a difference.”
Bah is quiet for a moment. It’s not easy to put into words such a turnabout of fortune. “That first day I set foot in the United States, I could look forward to what I would do in my life,” Bah says. “America permitted me freedom, opportunity, and a chance for a second life.
“People should use their rights as a catalyst for upward movement. They should exercise those rights in a civil society,” he says. “And agree to disagree. It’s OK. It’s good.”
“We leave ourselves uneducable if we dismiss people based on viewpoint; we leave the world uneducable if we strip someone of the right to speak on that basis. We can’t have freedom from speech. If we don’t protect everyone’s right to speak their mind, the First Amendment is null and void.”
—Sam Foer ’20, philosophy major
“As a journalist, you’re there to tell people the truth, to be a monitor of power and a voice for the voiceless.”
—Theresa Brown ’21, editor,
The Good Five Cent Cigar
“One thing about the First Amendment as the baseline for journalistic freedom is that it can be interpreted in many ways—but it’s the journalist’s job to interpret it in a responsible way.”
—Ian Weiner ’20, past editor,
The Good Five Cent Cigar
Because People Should be Remembered
On a spring evening in Nigeria in April 2014, 276 Chibok schoolgirls were kidnapped by the terrorist group Boko Haram. The world wanted the girls returned; the Nigerian government felt the pressure. At a Nigerian Ministry of Defence press briefing on the kidnappings, a government official threw a crumpled piece of paper at then-CNN correspondent Vladimir Duthiers ’91, Hon. ’17. In Nigeria, reporting the government unfavorably was tantamount to sedition.
“The official said, ‘Vlad, stop being disrespectful. Stop propagandizing Nigeria,’” Duthiers recalls. “They believed the reporting we were doing was making them out to be bad guys. It was the first time I heard charges of unreal or fake news.”
In that moment, Duthiers, now a CBS News correspondent and CBSN anchor, realized that wadded paper lobbed in your direction can be a threat.
It wasn’t the first time Duthiers risked retribution for his reporting. It wasn’t even the first time that year. In January of 2014, CNN reported on the first gay Nigerian to come out on television. That year Nigeria signed the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act into law. Duthiers’ job put him at great risk.
“I could be thrown in jail for 10 years under this new law,” Duthiers said in a television interview with Christiane Amanpour. The law made it illegal for anyone to associate with a person perceived to be homosexual.
But Duthiers was of the Amanpour school of journalism. “Nigeria has freedom of the press. Its journalists can be outspoken and critical, but they face harassment and violence. As an American journalist, what was horrific to see in Nigeria was people being rounded up on the suspicion of LGBTQ activity,” Duthiers says. “People with no access to lawyers. It was very clear to the American journalists that this was not America.
“The First Amendment was something we dealt with every single day,” Duthiers says. “You had to be very careful with what you wrote and what you said on the air. Governments monitor CNN and BBC. They were watching what we said and did.”
Duthiers’ reminiscing called to mind another anecdote: When covering former president of Liberia and convicted war criminal Charles Taylor’s trial, a government official said to Duthiers and his producer, “Journalists: Your AK-47 is your pen.”
It underscored the responsibility Duthiers carries and the risk he bears.
“Your life could be in danger whether you’re in the United States or abroad,” Duthiers says. “I tell young people that the role journalism plays in society places you under constant threat. You need to be aware that your life is at risk.
“The crowd could turn against you and the next thing you know, you’re running for your life. You need to take responsibility and strive mightily.”
The walls of Duthiers’ office are covered with photos of people he’s reported on. The photos bear witness to the subjects’ suffering and tragedy—and joy. “I am honored that they allowed me to share their stories with others,” Duthiers says. In some cases, speaking their truth is a thing his subjects can’t do for themselves.
In 2016, in Haiti, in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, Duthiers was in a village totally flattened. He and his crew had finished filming and were packing up. A woman approached asking if Duthiers would write her name in his notebook. Others followed suit. “In writing their names down, I think they knew I would take their stories with me. They would not be forgotten,” Duthiers says. “I still take that notebook out from time to time and read their names.
“It’s a small thing I can do.”
Because Sometimes You Have to Take a Stand
It was 1984 on a hot July afternoon in Providence, when, at the wake of legendary New England mafia crime boss Raymond Loreda Salvatore Patriarca Sr., two men exchanged a greeting and a rose. The gesture conveyed a profound respect that stunned the law enforcement officers observing. It’s not every day that you see mob bosses treating journalists with deference.
What witnesses saw was an exchange between new New England crime boss Raymond Patriarca Jr. and investigative broadcast journalist Jim Taricani, Hon. ’18. “Junior,” as Patriarca Jr. was known, had invited Taricani to his father’s wake and presented him with the rose. It was a mark of his father’s respect, Patriarca Jr. said.
“People understood Jim had a job to do, and they knew if he was covering the story, they would be treated fairly,” says his widow Laurie White ’81, who is president of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce. “But to have the mob boss’s son actually invite him to the wake! The FBI and the State Police and other law enforcement were watching the funeral home to see who went in, and when they saw him go in there, they said, ‘How the hell did you get in? Tell us who was in there.’”
“The role of the journalist is to speak the truth and perform a watchdog function for the public.”
—Laurie White ’81
Taricani declined. His ethics wouldn’t allow it. Twenty years later, Taricani would deny law enforcement a second time, refusing to reveal a source who leaked him an FBI surveillance tape. For this, Taricani was held in civil contempt of court by a federal judge and sentenced to six months’ home confinement. The case turned Taricani, already a legend among journalists, into the face of the free press. He traveled the country lecturing on the First Amendment, the federal shield law, and the Free Flow of Information Act, even testifying for the bill before Congress in 2007. The Edward R. Murrow Award-winner for investigative journalism, Taricani received the prestigious Yankee Quill Award from the New England Newspaper and Press Association in 2007.
This year, URI will launch the Taricani Lecture Series on First Amendment Rights, a series established by Laurie White, which has received support from alumni and friends who are interested in First Amendment issues and in sustaining Taricani’s legacy.
“After Jim’s passing, this concept of how to keep his work as a professional journalist alive revolved around the notion of how do we, during this particularly troubling time in our history, understand and appreciate the importance of the First Amendment and the freedoms afforded under it, particularly the rights of the press,” White says. “We want to keep that alive and inspire the next generation of ethical and responsible journalists—to continue to do that in a way that reflects our belief in our institutions and our democracy and our belief that journalists serve an essential role in our society.
“We are facing a real existential threat—the threat of powerful institutions to suppress the news,” White says. “The role of the journalist is to speak the truth and perform a watchdog function for the public.
“There is a need for the professional journalist to be protected.”
Because People Have the Right to Know
“I grew up in the stereotypical Catholic family: nine kids, all altar boys, in a house with a crucifix on the wall. A lightning storm would find my mother sprinkling the house with holy water,” Tom Farragher ’77, Hon. ’17, says.
So to be part of The Boston Globe Spotlight Team, which successfully sued the Catholic Church for sealed court records and broke the story about the protracted and systemic sexual abuse of children by serial pedophile priests in the Archdiocese of Boston, placed Farragher at odds with his spiritual teachers. “January 1, 2002, a Sunday, the story was on page one of The Globe. I’m walking into 7 a.m. Mass and Monsignor Eugene McNamara says, ‘What are you doing
The fourth estate, freedom of the press, had done battle with the Catholic Church in one of the most Catholic cities in the country. And won.
“Judge Constance M. Sweeney, who ruled that the records should come out, is the hero of this story. You saw two worlds clashing in that moment,” Farragher says. “Rome answers to nobody. I covered the court hearings where the church was arguing against the release. That ruling was game, set, and match. And those records were complete, lengthy, and damning.”
It was a win for freedom of the press and for the victims—and a sea change for Boston. Cardinal Bernard Law resigned in December 2002. Two-hundred-and-forty-nine archdiocesan priests and brothers were publicly accused of sexual abuse.
In the wake of The Globe’s revelations, the Catholic Church reported that more than 4,000 priests across the country had been accused of sexual abuse in the last 50 years.
The Spotlight Team won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. The
real winner in a story like this, though, is the public.
“The First Amendment is the backbone of what we do,” Farragher says. “There are public officials who are very careful about what they do, because they know there are people out there, like Spotlight, looking. When a mayor or police chief would tell me, ‘No, no, that’s not how it works,’ I would say, ‘The First Amendment is on my side.’”
In the 17 years since that Pulitzer Prize-winning Spotlight series, American newspapers have seen a precipitous drop in readership concurrent with exponential growth in internet media outlets. Competition for readers is fierce.
“The First Amendment is the backbone of what we do. There are public officials who are very careful about what they do, because they know there are people out there, like Spotlight, looking.”
—Thomas Farragher ’77, Hon. ’17
“Obviously it’s a splintered journalistic world now, but you look at the journalism The Globe is doing and there’s no question hard, vigorous journalism is being committed all the time,” Farragher says. “We have protected the nuclear core of what we do, and it is resonating. More people are reading The Globe online than ever in my 42 years of doing this.
I am hopeful about what we do, but the journalism world I walked into just doesn’t exist anymore. There’s great journalism being produced every day,” Farragher continues. “People have to be more discerning about who they go to and who they trust.”
Because Inequity Persists
Lorén Spears ’89, Hon ’17, executive director of the Tomaqaug Museum and member of the Narragansett Indian Tribe, possesses a graciousness and patience 400 years in the cultivation when explaining that authors of the First Amendment ignored indigenous people. First, she must dispel misconceptions about indigenous people. Second, augment American history to include indigenous people. Third, explain what it is to be indigenous in modern society.
The country’s formation depended upon the appropriation of indigenous land, a.k.a. theft, which required the vilification, dehumanization, and victimization of indigenous people, Spears says. “This notion of believing you have the right to do such a thing, to subjugate and dehumanize and victimize other human beings for your own goals.” Spears shakes her head. “The First Amendment was not written for those being displaced, dispossessed, or violently (attacked) through genocide, war, and enslavement.”
Resistance took many forms. Wars were waged—on battlefields, in classrooms, churches, and courtrooms. The federal government sought to deracinate indigenous people through conversion to Christianity, a European model of education, even detribalization. “Education was used against us as an act of war,” Spears says. “To strip us of everything we knew, to take away our language, our religion, our cultures, to disrupt our families and communities, and to break apart our political structures in order to force us to adopt or assimilate into Eurocentric concepts of community.”
Full access to the Bill of Rights for indigenous people is relatively new. The Indian Civil Rights Act was passed just 52 years ago. Religious freedom came 10 years later with the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978.
“When you think about historical trauma, this is ongoing,” Spears says. “There are still attacks on our sovereignty.”
Spears and the Tomaquag Museum continue the fight through educational programming, activism, strategic partnerships with the Indigenous Empowerment Network, and other efforts to “create opportunity, uplift native voices, and honor native cultural knowledge,” Spears says.
“There is no Rhode Island history without Narragansett, Niantic, and other indigenous people’s history,” Spears says. “And there is no such thing as United States history without indigenous people’s history.”
“We’re still reclaiming our rights,” Spears adds. “We still don’t often feel we’re heard. We’re not always at the table with the people that have the wealth, the power, and the control. So we’re still pursuing these rights and these freedoms that are guaranteed under the Constitution.”
Because Academic Freedom Matters
A 2017 survey conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania highlights the need for a nationwide civics lesson:
- 37% of American adults surveyed could not name one right guaranteed to them under the First Amendment.
- 53% surveyed thought immigrants here illegally have no rights under the U.S. Constitution.
- Only 25% could name all three branches of government.
Scientist and dean of the Graduate School Nasser Zawia is troubled. That people don’t know their rights is distressing enough. But that people who do know their rights don’t exercise them is equally unsettling.
“The First Amendment is very special to an academician because of tenure. Tenure was not designed to assure permanent job security but to protect academic freedom for faculty who want to speak truth to power and not fear for their jobs,” Zawia explains. “We have faculty here who are tenured and secure but will not speak truth to power. People rely on academics to be unbiased, neutral judges who do the due diligence and scholarly work.
“We should be the ones the public trusts.”
We are being tested as a country, Zawia says. Faculty should engage their students, openly discuss with them what’s going on. “We’re being tested about our tolerance, our diversity, our core values,” he adds. “Even about scientific beliefs.”
The university community, Zawia says, should be able to converse, debate, and learn from one another. “It’s a unique opportunity for students to come to a university and interact with so many different and diverse people,” Zawia continues. “This is the time for them to learn how to work with the world. Our role as teachers is to steer this ship and make sure everybody gets a chance to speak their mind.”
“Everybody deserves a chance.”
Because Discomfort is Part of Learning
Imagine a knock-down-drag-out fight between college roommates conducted via text. While in the same room. Consider a student sending an emergency alert through Wildfire that sets off a campus-wide panic. Picture a controversial speaker invited to campus by one student group whose presence causes members of another to fear for their safety. Such are the situations college administrators face today, says URI’s vice president for student affairs, Kathy Collins.
Complicating things further: the wild west that is social media and the legacy of well-intentioned elementary and secondary schools’ anti-bullying policies and curriculums, argue Erwin Chemerinsky and Howard Gillman in their book, Free Speech on Campus. “Many students associate free speech with bullying and shaming. Another difference is that some students extend the language of ‘harm’ and ‘threat’ to apply not only to traditional examples of so-called hate speech, but also to the expression of any idea they see contrary to their strongly held views of social justice,” Chemerinsky and Gillman write.
“So how do we look at issues that could range from DACA to trans rights to the upcoming election and everything in between?” Collins says. “I want to create the opportunity for students to express all of their opinions.
“The most important thing to me when I consider the First Amendment and students’ rights is that students understand there is a difference between their safety and their level of comfort. I hope students hear things that make them uncomfortable,” Collins says. “I hope they have discomfort for life. I have worked all over the world, and I believe students should go and experience different places and different points of view. That’s part of learning.”
Christiane Amanpour agrees with Collins. Battlefront or classroom: Each setting offers the opportunity to take a stand.
“The idea that you have to be safe from ideas that conflict with yours is wildly wrong. If not at university, where are you going to have the freedom to explore ideas that you don’t like, even people that you might not naturally gravitate toward?” Amanpour says. “It’s here in this safe space that you can actually operate in areas that you are in conflict with or don’t understand or that you think are offensive—that’s how you grow and that’s how you grow resilience. And that’s how you grow intellectually and find your way in the world.” •
Please return to this space for an extended version of this story with video.