April Ryan speaking at the First Amendment for the 21st Century conference. Photo by Tracy Certo

Freedom of speech is too often misunderstood or undervalued, and so is freedom of the press, said The Pittsburgh Foundation’s President and CEO Maxwell King, as he opened the First Amendment for the Twenty-First Century conference yesterday.

“Freedom of speech,” he said, “isn’t something that takes place in some ether over the nation. It takes place in communities. City by city, town by town.”

Here in our community, a vigorous and timely discussion about the 45 words that make up the First Amendment to our Constitution is happening this week at the conference presented by The Pittsburgh Foundation and The Heinz Endowments.

Blocks away, protesters were exercising their right to free speech in pushing for answers about the death of 17-year-old Antwon Rose, even as many Pittsburghers are still questioning the firing of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial cartoonist Rob Rogers. (Rogers will be interviewed at the conference today.)

In a brief but powerful address to the audience, The Pittsburgh Foundation’s Senior Vice President for Program and Policy Jeanne Pearlman spoke about Rose.

“Antwon Rose was a splendid young man. I knew him. Brilliant, creative, funny, extremely polite,” she told the crowd. “And he was killed.”

Pearlman told the crowd that she didn’t want to lead yet another “moment of silence” regarding another police-involved shooting in America. “I’m fatigued,” she said.

Instead, she asked the crowd to say Rose’s name, and it echoed through the crowded auditorium at the August Wilson Center.

In addition to the focus on Rose and the growing protest about his death, the afternoon’s sessions included a focus on freedom of the press and the importance of protecting the nation’s right to question our leaders about everything from violence to politics.

“Traditional news organizations that report information based on professional standards of journalism are under significant pressure these days from an eroding business model that doesn’t support the kind of journalism we need in a democracy,” King said, addressing a full house at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture.

Supporting and defending a free press is vital if our country is going to thrive, he said.

Underscoring that point, conference speaker April Ryan gave the audience an inside view into the White House briefing room as she spoke about reporting from there during her 21-year career with Pittsburgh-based American Urban Radio Networks.

Ryan said she has had “the opportunity to question and to call by name four American presidents,” thanks to the First Amendment. And although she has seen an intense campaign unfolding in America to intimidate and even threaten journalists, that Amendment means that earlier this week at the White House, “I was able to sit in that third row and ask Secretary Nielsen” about the immigrant children being taken from their parents.

“I am not an activist journalist. But I’m an activist for truth,” Ryan said. “My march is for you to get information.”

In speaking about her commitment to putting equal pressure on Democrat and Republican administrations during her two decades covering the White House, she said, “I got into it with Robert Gibbs during the Obama administration.”

No matter who is in charge, Ryan said, “I’m going to ask questions.”

She also invoked the words of one of the country’s most prominent Republicans. “Sen. John McCain said it best: When you suppress the press, there begins a dictatorship,” Ryan said. “What will this president do if we are suppressed? You don’t know if we don’t ask questions.”

So what can Americans do during a time when the First Amendment is under attack?

First, Ryan said, teach your children: “We are doing a disservice to our children and the next generation if we don’t walk around and give them the Constitution and explain to them that ‘we the people’ are allowed to challenge” our leaders.

Too many students, she said, don’t know the Preamble or the Bill of Rights. “Maybe we need some Schoolhouse Rock! up in here.”

Knowledge of our rights and a determination to defend them are keys to maintaining our democracy, she said: “That’s what makes us different than China, makes us different than Putin’s Russia.”

Ryan said she recently asked one of her “good Republican sources,” someone high-ranking who interacts with President Trump directly, how the president really sees the press.

“This POTUS believes that the press has the right to be free so long as they agree with his narrative,” the source told Ryan. “For him, freedom of the press is the freedom he decides. This is why he praises Fox and disparages others.”

Another step she said all Americans can take: Rather than selectively watching the news, Ryan encouraged the crowd to watch Fox and CNN and as many other networks as possible. “But understand when you’re watching it. Use a discerning eye,” she said. “There is a fine line between opinion and fact now. … You know what they teach kids in school now? Critical thinking.”

While “we the people are still forming a more perfect union,” we have to remember that “freedom of the press is part of that Preamble, and part of what is happening down the road at city hall for that 17-year-old who should be alive,” Ryan said.

“We are in a crazy time where the truth is on the table and people want to change the narrative. And they want to accuse the press, who tries to unearth the truth, to make you think that we are wrong.”

Melissa Rayworth

Kidsburgh Editor Melissa Rayworth specializes in stories about culture, gender, design and parenting. She has written for a variety of outlets in the U.S. and Asia, and is a frequent contributor to The Associated Press. Find a selection of her work at melissarayworth.pressfolios.com.