Educators from 20 states gathered in Philadelphia last week to wrestle with issues involving the First Amendment in 21st century America at the annual summer teachers institute sponsored by the Rendell Center for Civics and Civic Engagement.
This year’s session, presented by the National Endowment for the Humanities and co-sponsored by the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC), the home of the Rendell Center, brought 30 middle and high school teachers to APPC and the National Constitution Center.
At the policy center on Friday, July 26, 2019, the teachers heard from a panel on the First Amendment, the press and the election, including former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell. They heard about how the First Amendment applies differently to the news media and social media, publishers of news and distributors of news, and considered critical Supreme Court cases.
Rendell posed a question. What if, for example, Facebook were used to spread misinformation about Philadelphia polling locations just before an election – effectively disenfranchising many voters who no longer knew where the correct polling places were?
“There has to be regulation” to address that kind of viral misinformation, said Rendell, who founded the Rendell Center with his former wife, Judge Marjorie O. Rendell of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. “You can’t tell me, the First Amendment notwithstanding, that we can’t do something to regulate that kind of conduct.”
Rendell was joined by moderator Dave Davies, a senior reporter for WHYY; Alison Perelman, executive director of Philadelphia 3.0, a progressive Philadelphia super PAC; and Michael Berry, a First Amendment lawyer with Ballard Spahr LLP. Perelman led the group through the intricacies of Philadelphia election practices. She described how her group has pressed to make races in the city competitive – for instance, successfully supporting a challenger for a City Council seat that had been held for nearly a half-century by a husband and wife.
Berry helped the teachers see how the First Amendment affects public though not private speech – and how comments on Facebook are private. He added, “Merely because something is false doesn’t mean it is not protected by the First Amendment.”
Beth Specker, executive director of the Rendell Center, said the sessions aimed to provide the teachers with strategies, resources, and ideas to bring back to their classrooms. “The institute was designed to explore the main themes, ideas, and history of the First Amendment,” Specker said. “We began with the founding period and then engaged in a deep analysis of the First Amendment issues, bringing us up to 21st century America.”
The program, also co-sponsored by the National Constitution Center, ran from July 21-27 and also featured:
- Michael Gerhardt, Burton Craig Distinguished Professor of Jurisprudence, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
- Bruce Allen Murphy, Fred Morgan Kirby Professor of Civil Rights, Lafayette College
- Helena Silverstein, Professor and Department Head, Government and Law Department, Lafayette College
- Keith Whittington, William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics, Princeton University
- Grier Stephenson, Charles A. Dana Professor, Emeritus, Department of Government, Franklin and Marshall College
- Third Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Theodore McKee
- Third Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Kent Jordan
- Third Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Marjorie Rendell
- David Trevaskis, Pro Bono Coordinator, Pennsylvania Bar Association
- Sally Flaherty, retired Social Studies Content Advisor, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
- Ellen Iwamoto, Director of the Leonore Annenberg Institute for Civics
- Kerry Sautner, Chief Learning Officer, National Constitution Center
- Mike Adams, Director of Education, National Constitution Center