First Amendment rights on display during Constitution Week panel
September 20, 2017
The privilege of the First Amendment was on full display on Monday afternoon when a
group of speakers met in Le Bijou Theater for a Constitution Week panel.
The panel consisted of five members who all have knowledge and experience in the fields
of criminal law, government or mass communication. The meeting served to inform students
attending Nicholls about their right to freedom of speech, according to the First Amendment, as
college students and as citizens of the state of Louisiana.
The first speaker was Dr. Rusty Thysell, professor of government at Nicholls. Thysell
began by addressing the original interpretations of the First Amendment and how that
interpretation has changed as time passes.
“When the original Constitution was written, it only applied to the national government.
That’s why if you look at the First Amendment it says, ‘Congress shall pass no law.’…It wasn't
until the early part of the twentieth century, in Gitlow v. New York, that the First Amendment
would start applying to the states,” Thysell said.
The case that Thysell referenced, Gitlow v. New York, 268 U.S. 652 (1925), was the
decision of the Supreme Court to extend the First Amendment's protection of free speech to state
The next speaker was Judge Bruce Simpson, former attorney and judge, who served as
judge in the Lafourche Parish District Court from 1994-2004. Simpson spoke about the
regulations that a state can apply on free speech due to its First Amendment rights.
“Speech may be subject to restrictions of the time, place, and manner of expression,”
Simpson also addressed the issue of regulations the state can impose on free speech as it
pertains to modern college students.
“The state of Louisiana has placed many restrictions on your use of your cellphone, your
computers and other electronic devices.” Simpson said.
Mark Plaisance, attorney at law, mass communication graduate from Nicholls in 1983
and a chief public defender, spoke next on the topic of public meetings and records.
Plaisance informed the audience that, as residents of the state of Louisiana, everyone has the right to access
public records, as well as the right to attend pubic meetings. The only exception is when a public
meeting is held in executive session, which means behind closed doors, but citizens are still
allowed to challenge that the meeting be held in the eye of the public.
“The public body can go into executive session to discuss litigation.” Plaisance said.
This means that if a public body is discussing legal action it is taking or legal action
being taken against it, it has the right to withhold that information from the public. Plaisance also
spoke about the right to access public records.
“You have a right to request any public document that is used within the normal scope of
government business.” Plaisance said.
The next speaker was Nicki Boudreaux, instructor of mass communication at Nicholls
and the faculty advisor for the Society of Professional Journalists. Boudreaux took the broad
subject of free speech and applied it to the every day life of a college student on campus.
Boudreaux addressed the audience and informed them that they may not have as much freedom
that is typically associated with college life.
“The Supreme Court has actually not yet determined whether or not First Amendment
rights apply to you as a college student in a majority of situations.” Boudreaux said.
Boudreaux went on to cover recent examples of college students’ First Amendment rights
being disregarded on campuses throughout the United States. Earlier this week, a student
journalist covering a protest at the University of Texas at Austin was assaulted while covering a
protest. Last week, student reporters at North Carolina State University were kicked out of an
open Student Government Association meeting and were given no legal reason as to why.
“Even here at Nicholls, student journalists have had to deal with some similar issues
regarding access to meetings, access to information and denied public records requests,” said
Boudreaux also noted that college campuses throughout the United States are seemingly
trying to protect their students from controversy.
“Colleges across the country…have been coming under fire about administrators refusing
artists, musicians, or speakers that may bring potential for controversy.” Boudreaux said.
Administrations have also cracked down on students’ right to free speech. In May,
Middlebury College in Vermont disciplined more than 60 students for their roles in protesting a
speech by Charles Murray, a political scientist with right-wing ideologies. On September 9,
arrests occurred at a protest at the University of California-Berkley. Protesters were there to
demonstrate disapproval of conservative speaker Ben Shapiro.
The final speaker was Dr. Linda Martin, assistant professor of mass communication at
Nicholls and the faculty advisor for the Public Relations Society of America. Martin discussed
issues of libel and defamation in today’s world.
“Defamation is not protected by the First Amendment…The burden of proof is on the
defamed person,” said Martin.
Martin went on to talk about how a new form of libel has arisen with the evolution of
technology over the past few years. “Twibel,” or twitter libel, is the defamation of someone on
Twitter. With the things people say and do becoming more accessible, Martin warned the
audience to be wary of what they say online because it may come back to haunt them.