Since the Revolutionary War, Americans have prided themselves on standing up for basic civil rights. Among these rights is the freedom of speech, as guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”
As over the years lawyers and courts have interpreted and reinterpreted these words, some people no longer understand their original intention. Thus Americans sometimes find their right to freedom of speech abridged. To clear up such confusion, Robert M. O’Neil, director of The Thomas Jefferson Center for Free Expression, speaks on Tuesday, February 26, on the subject, “Getting Sued for Your Speech.”
"Most of us tend to think of 'speech' and 'press' in the relatively traditional modes of the spoken and printed word. Increasingly we will be dealing with issues of free expression in other media— controversial art works, research on uncongenial topics, electronic affronts, and still other forms we may not yet envision. It would serve us well to stay ahead of the game in this regard as well as others," says O’Neil.
As any concerned watchdog should, O’Neil has been keeping a close eye on developments in the courts and in popular culture involving abuses of free speech. The Center for Free Expression, which he founded in 1990 after five years as UVA’s president, scans newswires around the world looking for free speech offenders. He awards the Center’s annual Jefferson Muzzles to particularly egregious offenders on the anniversary of Jefferson’s birth, April 13. The Center also recognizes those who have shown extraordinary devotion to the principles of free expression through its William J. Brennan Jr. Award.
O’Neil’s upcoming speech will address new legal challenges to free expression that place the media at risk. Such challenges include the recent Hit-Man Manual case, in which the publishers were held libel for a murder committed by a reader of the book when the court ruled that the book was not “protected speech," since its apparent purpose was "to facilitate murder."
The ripple effect from this case has spread broadly and quickly, and new threats to free speech, including protected speech on the Internet and through e-mail, warrant O’Neil’s lecture and his current book, The First Amendment and Civil Liability, which he will sign afterwards.
O’Neil talks onTuesday, February 26, at 7:30pm. Reception and book signing will follow. The event is open to the public, but seating is limited. 400 Peter Jefferson Place. To reserve your seat, call 295-4784.