October 26, 2000

First Amendment Faces Technology Age

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Retired New York Times columnist Tom Wicker discussed “Privacy in the Age of Media” yesterday afternoon. Addressing a mostly filled Hollis E. Cornell Auditorium, Wicker discussed the political and personal controversies inherent in upholding the First Amendment Freedom of Speech law.

Wicker said that in a technologically advancing society, Americans take the First Amendment for granted and too often confuse personal interests with moral values.

Commenting on “watch-dog” journalism in which the press makes crucial decisions about what the public reads, Wicker admitted that “If I’m reading the article written about my lecture tomorrow, it’s going to be a miracle if I recognize it.”

Wicker opened with a brief discussion of campaign finance reform, using the 1976 Supreme Court case Buckely v. Valeo as an example in which the government prohibited limitations on how much a candidate could spend on a campaign.

In a broader sense, Wicker explained that the Supreme Court today is divided into two camps. For some, “the First Amendment is absolute and cannot be tampered with,” while others “favor some restrictions.”

Wicker explained the problems that arise over the gray areas in the First Amendment.

“The monetary presence of technology in modern life is a threat to our freedom,” Wicker said. With the proliferating growth of “cell phones, online banking and shopping on the Internet,” Wicker said he wonders if Americans have not already “opted to sustain conveniences over rights.”

Wicker explained that despite the omnipresence of cell phones today, many Americans are not aware that law officers “can pinpoint the location of cell phones.” He called this location process the modern equivalent of wire-tapping and noted that while cell phone users insist on protecting their privacy, they also count on the First Amendment to protect their right to free speech.

“Constitutional protection is too often taken for granted,” Wicker said.

Wicker fears that the American people will not choose civil liberties over conveniences. “It is particularly hard for parents to understand why pornography cannot be banned to protect children,” he said.

“Unfortunately,” Wicker said, “one person’s pornography may be one person’s artistic expression.”

Wicker went on to explain the role of privacy in the lives of political figures. “What right does a mayor, governor or president have to personal privacy?” he asked. “He or she wanted the office, the privileges and the responsibility,” he said, implying that the loss of a personal private life might be an obligatory sacrifice to obtain the office.

A 30 minute question and answer session followed the hour-long lecture, which many Cornell alums attended.

M. William Wylkoff ’69 said he agreed with most everything the speaker said but still felt that Wicker “left many questions unanswered regarding third party censorship.”

Wicker first started writing for the New York Times in 1961 and retired in 1991 as associate editor. Previously, he had worked for the Winston-Salem Journal and the Nashville Tennessean. He is the author of ten novels and six political commentaries, including One of Us: Richard Nixon and the American Dream.

“Privacy in the Age of Media” was sponsored by the Kops Freedom of the Press Fellowship Program founded by Daniel W. Kops ’39, who said he had been “very pleased with the program’s diversity of speakers.”

Archived article by Janet Liao