First Amendment Symposium Celebrates 230th Anniversary of Ratification

Several states and countless American citizens demanded a Bill of Rights as a condition for ratification of the Constitution. As a result, James Madison composed a list of 12 proposed amendments, and they were submitted to the states by the First Congress on September 25, 1789. 

To celebrate this singular and pivotal event in American history on its 230th anniversary, a Symposium on the First Amendment is planned for Utah State University, Wednesday, Sept. 25, the exact commemoration date. It is part of the Tanner Talk Series, sponsored by USU’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences and made possible through by an O. C. Tanner Foundation endowment. Co-sponsors are USU’s Department of Political Science and the Department of Journalism and Communication. 

A panel discussion on the value, history and continuing impact of the First Amendment will be held from 3:30-5 p.m. in the Eccles Conference Center auditorium (ECC 216) on the Utah State University campus. Panelists include Justice Paige Petersen of the Utah Supreme Court and RonNell Andersen Jones of the University of Utah Quinney College of Law. Thomas Terry, USU journalism professor, will also participate on the panel and serve as moderator. A Q&A session will follow with a reception in ECC 205 and 207 afterwards.

Donald Shaw will deliver the Tanner Talk keynote lecture on the threats and triumphs of the First Amendment on the evening of September 25. Shaw’s speech will be from 8-9 p.m. in USU’s Eccles Science Learning Center auditorium (ESLC 046) with a Q&A session following.

“Given the magnitude of the Bill of Rights and the significance it has to our system,” Joe Ward noted, “this symposium seems both a timely and an important reminder of what we owe to those who created our constitutional system.” 

Ward is dean of USU’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences, which supervises the Tanner Talk series. He researches and publishes in 17th Century English history.

Shaw is Kenan Professor Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an internationally recognized historian and political theorist, best known for co-creating the agenda setting theory of the media. 

Petersen was appointed to the Utah Supreme Court in 2017 after serving as a Utah Third District Court judge. She graduated from Yale Law School in 1999 following graduation from the College of Eastern Utah in Price (now USU Eastern) and the University of Utah. After clerking for two years in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, she first practiced civil litigation in New York City. Petersen then served as an assistant U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, prosecuting cases involving organized crime and international narcotics trafficking. Following that, she assisted in prosecuting war crimes cases at the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, including the successful prosecution of the former Serbian chief of police for mass murder and ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. 

Jones is the Lee E. Teitelbaum Endowed Chair and Professor of Law in the Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah. She is an affiliated fellow at Yale Law School’s Information Society Project. Before assuming her current position, she was a distinguished faculty fellow at the University of Arizona and a law professor and associate dean of academic affairs and research in Brigham Young University’s Clark Law School, where she was twice Professor of the Year. Jones earned her bachelor’s from USU, Logan, in journalism and communication and graduated first in her class from the Moritz College of Law at The Ohio State University. She is a former newspaper reporter and editor. Jones clerked for Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor of the U.S. Supreme Court and William A. Fletcher of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. She teaches, researches and writes on legal issues affecting the press and on the intersection between the media and the courts.

A commemorative tree to mark the symposium will be planted at the southwest corner of Old Main Hill at 3 p.m., Sept. 25, by Petersen, Jones and Ward.

All events are free and open to the public.

“What sets us apart as Americans is our commitment to a system that is clearly laid out and articulated,” Terry said. “Citizen rights are specifically guaranteed in a written Constitution with an opportunity that other rights might be later discovered or interpreted to exist, such as privacy. That’s the enduring genius of the entire Bill of Rights.” 

“The First Amendment grows out of our experiences with Britain before the Revolution and caused us to no longer see ourselves as English subjects, but rather as Americans,” Shaw said. “This drove us to declare our independence, to fight for it, and then secure it with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.” 

There was something potentially more dangerous at work that informed the Framers, Terry believed. 

“The UK’s Constitution is unwritten and their system is based on a collection of documents, judicial rulings, the often-unpredictable whims of Parliament and contracts between the crown and the people, such as Magna Carta. We didn’t want to risk that,” Terry added. “If you look at the chaos over Brexit and whether to leave or not leave the European Union and when or even if to have an election, you can see why we chose to put it all down in writing.”

Shaw turned to Thomas Jefferson for an apt observation. “He was looking at the trajectory of English history when he remarked, ‘The two enemies of the people are criminals and government, so let us tie the second down with the chains of the Constitution so the second will not become the legalized version of the first.’” 

Terry noted that things have now gone full circle between the United States and its former colonial ruler. 

“It has been almost exactly 10 years since the United Kingdom – except Scotland – created its own Supreme Court, one of our Constitution’s greatest and most influential innovations,” he said. “The UK Supreme Court is following in its American counterpart’s footsteps with various decisions establishing it as the final arbiter of the constitutionality of laws and conflicts between the rights of its citizens in relation to their government.”

The full name of the commemoration is, “First Amendment Symposium: Celebrating the 230th Anniversary of its Submission to the States for Ratification.” The title of Shaw’s speech is, “First Amendment Rights: Threats, Triumphs, and Agendas.”

Shaw is scheduled to speak to advanced reporting and media law classes during his visit. 

Tanner Talks is an annual lecture series endowed by the O.C. Tanner Foundation, created by Obert C. Tanner, a former University of Utah professor of philosophy. He was founder of the O.C. Tanner Company, one of the largest manufacturers of retail and corporate awards in the United States.


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