Credit: Dylan Wilson
'Lessons in transparency': Augusta University hosts First Amendment awards, lecture for students
LISTEN: Augusta University student journalist Rakiyah Lenon interviews attorney Frank LoMonte at the school's Future of the First Amendment Lecture on March 14, 2023.
Sunshine Week is an annual event organized by the Society of Professional Journalists to promote transparency and freedom of information for news gathering around the country. This year's activities took place between March 12 through March 18, and Augusta University invited its students to learn more about the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution through an awards ceremony and guest lecture. AU is part of the public University of Georgia system.
On March 14, 2023, Atlanta-based lawyer Frank LoMonte spoke at AU's 'Future of the First Amendment Lecture' and received a 'Champion of the First Amendment' award from the school.
LoMonte has served as legal counsel to CNN journalists and spent nearly a decade as executive director of the Student Press Law Center, a nonprofit founded in 1974 to advocate for the First Amendment rights of student journalists and their teachers at the college and high school levels.
Student Rakiyah Lenon, editor-in-chief at AU's newspaper, The Bell Ringer, was also honored, along with Library Dean Bradley Warren and Pamplin College Dean Kim Davies.
Lenon said awareness of the First Amendment is key for students, and the school's events help them understand it.
"It is what journalists rely on: freedom of the press," Lenon said. "It's one of the jobs that is protected in the First Amendment. And it's something that has been of interest and is very important [to students]."
She wrote about LoMonte's lecture for the paper and mentioned the issues and common misconceptions surrounding the First Amendment, which LoMonte described as "a little bit of a damaged brand."
“People invoke the First Amendment typically when there’s a crisis going on, when there’s a dispute about extreme or hateful speech,” LoMonte said. “Over time, those two things kind of become associated with one another.”
He added, “While it’s terrific that it exists, freedom of speech doesn’t matter when you’re saying something non-controversial. They’re trying to silence you when you say something that’s pushing the edge or pushing people’s buttons.”
Lenon also interviewed LoMonte about open records and laws that protect members of the student press, especially in the age of social media.
“I think people are really concerned, as they probably should be, that these platforms have so much power to kind of [be] choke points of our public dialogue,” he said. “When they change their polices, it kind of changes the public discourse. It’s a really hard tightrope for those organizations to walk on.”
Lenon, who is a junior at AU, said interviewing LoMonte was a great experience.
"It was my first on-camera interview," she said. "I'm always used to being behind the scenes and recording and having a reporter's notebook — so it was a pretty big deal," she said. "He had a lot to say, and I think I took the time to make sure to ask questions I thought would provide some informative answers."