President Michael Benson and President Emeritus Doug Whitlock signed pledges to uphold the First Amendment and student media as "designated public forums."

EKU celebrates the First Amendment with a week of events that promote the importance of freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition protected by the Constitution from April 15 to 18. 

On Monday, April 15, a Guardians of Kentucky panel discussed how they protect their rights as journalists. 

Moderating the panel was Editorial Director of Landmark Community Newspapers John Nelson. Nelson spoke about the first amendment and the five freedoms. He then went on to introduce the people that make up the panel of professional journalists Jeff Vanderbeck, publisher of Appalachian News Express; Miranda Combs, Investigative Reporter for WKYT; Abigail Whitehouse of Interior Journal and Ryan Craig, advisor of the Kentucky Kernel at the University of Kekntucky. 

Vanderbeck spoke about his experience being a journalist in a small town.

“I’ve had a circuit judge threaten to shoot me, a mayor punch my editor, a city official come in and punch my reporter. I had another county official threaten to punch me at the grocery store,” Vanderbeck said. “You’ll find that the politicians don’t like the truth.”

Vanderbeck explained that he and his employees have to be prepared for things to get dangerous at times due to everyone knowing each other in the community. 

“The moral of the story is that if you work as an editor or a reporter in a small community, you see the people that you write about every day — in the aisle at the grocery store or in the pew at the church, and so you need to be prepared for the backlash and have the courage to stand by your work,” said Nelson in reference to Vanderbeck’s comment. 

Combs explained that social media is great because you are able to find people quick, but it also “puts you at arms length” to others. She described some of the backlash she receives on social media, such as one person who said,“you may be a very nice person, I don’t know. But as a journalist you stink.” Combs described how she and her sons have been threatened and how much it puts her and her family through. 

 “I had to write a story about an eviction that turned out to be a very large methamphetamine drug bust and the person that was involved happened to be the son of the local grocery store owner who was our largest advertiser,” Whitehouse said. She said that she received a call from them reminding her that they were their largest advertiser; however, she had to write the story anyway. 

“I had to explain to them why it was being written and why it would be unfair to leave their son out of the story while leaving someone else’s son in the story,” Whitehouse said. She went on to explain how people can get upset or embarrassed and lash out at the journalist directly, which eventually led her to contact the local police department, of which she is very appreciative. Later in the panel, she spoke about her experience being accused of “fake news.” 

“At one point the city sheriff had threatened to tase a handicapped man that had complained about him [the sheriff] parking in a handicapped spot at Walmart in Russell, Kentucky,” Craig said. 

The journalists ran the transcript of the 911 exchange as proof of the incident because they knew that they would be called liars.

“He [the sherriff] went to the [printing] press and took one of the papers off to see how bad the damage was - did not pay, just walked out,” Craig said. 

Craig called the police department and reported the act. Because he feared retribution, for the rest of the sheriff’s term, he would not drive down long country roads alone, he said.

After each told of their experiences, the panel continued to talk about the things  they had been through and how they dealt with them such as having to destroy a good story because it was better for the organization or individuals’ safety. 

“I’ve learned over the last six years that this isn’t about gotcha journalism. It’s really about the people that can’t help themselves,” Combs said. “People really trust us to help them more than anything else.” 

On Tuesday, the Society of Professional Journalists chapter at EKU hosted a memorial for journalists and media workers killed from January 1, 2018 to the present as part of First Amendment Week. 

Students and faculty read the names of 97 individuals at a ceremony in the Meditation Chapel. President Michael T. Benson and President Emeritus Charles D. Whitlock attended the event and read some of the names during the ceremony.

Benson and Whitlock also signed a pledge, stating that student media is a designated public forum and upholds First Amendment rights. Whitlock signed the same pledge on April 6, 2009. 

“If a university cannot be a bastion of free speech, then it is not truly a university,” said Whitlock in a message to Progress staff. “I am very proud that on my watch EKU became the first Kentucky university to earn a ‘Green Light’ on free speech from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).” 

During his remarks at the ceremony, Benson said his family has heavy ties to journalism. His brother, Steve Benson, is a Pulitzer Prize winning political cartoonist, and his two oldest children are interested in becoming journalists someday. 

Wednesday of First Amendment week was celebrated by a speech from Zana Day. Day is the Communications Director for Brand New Congress. Day is a former special projects editor at the Eastern Progress and graduated in 2016 with degrees in journalism and public relations.

Today, the Department of Government will host a panel concerning freedom of religion at 11 a.m. in the Grise Auditorium in Combs. Anne Cizmar, an associate professor in the Department of Government, will moderate the panel. 

Editor’s Note: The Eastern Progress Media Network and Society of Professional Journalists are sponsors of First Amendment Week. Members of both organizations contributed to the coverage of events.

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