The Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee University

The First Amendment: Banned, Canceled, Censored


The First Amendment is a pillar of American society, and therefore a fundamental facet of democracy. However, it has been under attack in recent years following a series of challenges launched on the five protections of the amendment. The Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University, with their 1 for All campaign, tasked students at Martin Hall Agency with raising awareness and understanding of the First Amendment on West Virginia University’s campus.

FACT-FINDING THE FIRST AMENDMENT

We completed secondary and primary research, focusing on understanding the current attacks on the amendment and college students’ perceptions of it. Some team members interviewed experts from Pen America and MTSU’s Free Speech Center to better understand how to launch a campaign targeting college students. We also conducted 55 man-on-the-street interviews at various locations around campus in order to grasp students’ understanding of the First Amendment. Through this, we found that college students take their First Amendment protections for granted.

Key findings

Activation

SENDING SHOCKWAVES

Because we found students to be complacent in understanding and exercising their First Amendment rights, we decided to take them away. To show students how the First Amendment influences their time on campus, we drew attention to things that couldn’t happen without the amendment.

Canvas the Campus

We hung targeted fliers across campus buildings with events and figures which were banned, canceled or censored according to their specific protection of the First Amendment.

  • Historical and literary figures were banned in the campus library and English/History building
  • A playlist was censored in the student recreation center and the College of Creative Arts
  • A First Amendment mural was covered in the media college with an upside down flag and newspapers were chained 
  • Digital graphics were shown on the Reed College of Media infostations

Every group of print and digital materials have a unique QR code leading students to a page about a certain aspect of the First Amendment. 

Student Org Lock-Out

In continuing our deprivation of the First Amendment, we targeted student organizations to remind students of the importance of the right to assemble. With the help of WVU’s chapter of the American Advertising Federation (AAF), we locked students out of a regularly-scheduled organization meeting with the help of AAF’s executive board. Team members also spoke at the student government’s public forum session on the importance of the First Amendment on campus. These events paired with our banned, canceled and censored fliers began a conversation among students about how the First Amendment is serving them at WVU. 

Free Speech Zone Closure

The heart of our campaign set out to show students what their lives look like without the First Amendment, and that’s exactly what we did when we shut down the Free Speech Zone outside of the Mountainlair. The Free Speech Zone is a designated area on campus for demonstrating one’s First Amendment rights, so we decided to ‘close’ it as part of an experiential activation. 

  • Traffic cones and caution tape were used to block the area off 
  • Signage explaining why the zone was closing with a QR code leading students to our landing page 
  • Team members were present to answer students’ questions about the purpose of closing the area 

Education

STARTING THE CONVERSATION

As part of our work in generating awareness of the First Amendment, we worked on creating and promoting educational events on campus to engage students with the topic of the First Amendment and misinformation. 

Panel Promotion

WVU’s Reed College of Media and College of Law are working together on “A Year of Reckoning,” an educational effort to promote understanding of the First Amendment on campus. Part of our task involved getting students to attend “Who Informs the Citizenry? Finding Trust and Truth in a Fractured Age,” a panel discussion with four experts on the spread of misinformation.

Panel Attendance

Trivia at Up All Night

Through research our team identified that a fun, incentivized activity is one of the best ways to engage the student body, so we held a First Amendment trivia night at WVU’s Up All Night on Nov. 12. The team hosted a booth with raffle prizes, goodie bags, and an interactive Kahoot with the hopes that participants would be able to name the five freedoms of the First Amendment upon leaving. After conducting a post survey, we found an improvement in general knowledge about the First Amendment among the students that participated.

CONTINUING THE CONVERSATION

With over 32,000 media impressions between social platforms and earned media coverage, this campaign has started a real conversation about the First Amendment’s role on WVU’s campus that will continue in the coming year. The “Year of Reckoning” began with this campaign to promote awareness and understanding of the First Amendment, and this agency’s involvement will continue through spring 2022. The initiative will end in September 2022 with an in-person panel and additional events will be shaped by the research and success of this team’s work.

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