Over a hundred local citizens gathered last Thursday evening for a panel presentation and group discussion about the significance of 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, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The moderator for the evening was Christopher Van Dyke, attorney, former assistant attorney general of Oregon, and the son of comedian and actor Dick Van Dyke. He told the audience his teachers had described him as “verbally energetic.”

Van Dyke issued a call for civility in this age of “digital amplification,” where people’s speech can become aggressive and threatening, and yet censorship runs the risk of controlling and marginalizing certain people or groups. He believes our democracy is at stake if we can’t maintain civil discourse. He asked the audience to consider, “It’s not what you can say, rather what you should say.”

A four-member panel then individually discussed the tenets of the First Amendment from their particular perspectives — legal, journalistic, religious, and literary.

Local retired attorney Pete Shepherd, who practiced law in Salem and Eugene, and as part of the Department of Environmental Quality, shared that he earned the name “Long Wind” in his work with the tribes. Despite the moniker, he provided a succinct and very understandable lesson in the application of the First Amendment in four different scenarios, which highlighted when speech is protected and when it can be regulated.

The First Amendment is applicable to every government at every level – national, state, and local. Essentially, if a government isn’t involved, there isn’t a constitutional issue.

Offensive or profane speech is protected, but can be regulated in certain instances. There is a “fighting words exception” having to do with written or spoken words intended to incite hatred or violence from their target. Specific definitions, freedoms, and limitations of fighting words vary by jurisdiction.

The importance of freedom of the press was outlined by Nugget Editor in Chief Jim Cornelius, who said that dissemination of information and holding governments accountable are the two most important jobs of a free press.

Cornelius believes the Bill of Rights is the bulwark between liberty and tyranny and provides for the freedom of conscience. The phrases within the amendments can be in tension with each other, an intention of the founders to allow for latitude in interpretation.

Lane Jacobson, owner of Paulina Springs Books, believes that free speech is “central to the ethos of our country.” He suggested that self-censorship is each person’s civic responsibility. He sees books as “critical to the free exchange of ideas.” Educating oneself on the facts of an issue is necessary for civil discourse.

When selecting books for his store, Jacobson exercises a certain level of censorship on books that are a danger to public safety (fad diets), denying actual events (Sandy Hook), or derogatory toward certain groups (anti-Semitic).

Sisters Community Church pastor Steve Stratos reminded the audience that the guarantee of freedom of religion was essential to the founding of the U.S., since so many who immigrated here did so to have the ability to practice their faith free from a state-run church.

The heart of the issue for Stratos lies in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable Rights…” Stratos thinks we have drifted away from “a moral code of transcendent truth.” Who’s my neighbor and how do I treat them? Am I sharing what I have?

How we define our words is of great importance, according to Stratos. What is freedom? How can we flourish if we can’t define what it means to flourish?

There were a number of thoughtful questions and comments from the audience.

Does the government have a role in controlling speech that creates fear? The state can enhance a penalty if a crime stems from hateful action, but the impact of speech alone is not as clear. That is an area of “unsettled law,” according to Shepherd.

Terms like “weaponized speech,” “opinion falsification,” and “situational ethics” (what benefits me) have crept into the national discourse. Audience members mentioned “finding our way back to each other and common values,” the need for an “internal spiritual reformation,” and the “tribalism of the far right and far left that is based on fear of each other.”

The rapid advance of technology has made it more difficult to know what is real, suggested one attendee, making education important. Jacobson concurred that technology exacerbates the issue and increases difficulty in discerning the truth.

In response, Cornelius shared the question he asks himself as he practices skepticism in evaluating the news or information coming his way.

“Who benefits by my believing this and sharing it with others?” he asks. So much of what passes as “news” isn’t about reporting the truth; rather it is about big business and money.

The consensus among the audience was that the event was well organized and worthwhile, with audience members appreciating the opportunity to have an engaging and intelligent discussion on controversial topics.

The evening was sponsored by Citizens4Community and The Nugget Newspaper. C4C’s next event will be Let’s Talk Sisters on November 18, where the discussion will center on the use of guns on public lands. For more information see www.citizens

4community.com/events.