I admired Peter Jennings and his integrity and commitment to journalism, so when I had the opportunity to apply for a fellowship named after Jennings at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia last December, I jumped at the chance.
Happily, I received word in January that I had been selected a 2010 Peter Jennings Fellow for the Peter Jennings Project for Journalists and the Constitution.
Named after the late Peter Jennings, former news anchor and editor of ABC News “World News Tonight,” the project is designed to help journalists and students understand the U.S. Constitution and constitutional issues and apply them to their work.
In late February, I participated in the program, one of the greatest experiences in my life as a professional journalist.
Journalist Fellows for 2010 included 32 professional journalists from various newspapers, magazines, broadcasting networks and online publications such as The Wall Street Journal, New York Daily News, Forbes, BBC, CBS News, The Philadelphia Inquirer, MTV News, Houston Chronicle, Hawaii Public Radio, Telemundo Network, World Policy Institute, Fox Television Stations, The Associated Press, How StuffWorks.com and Voice of America.
In addition, seven Collegiate Fellows from such institutions as Yale University, Brandeis University, the University of Minnesota, the University of Missouri and the United States Military Academy at West Point participated.
The 2010 faculty included Akhil Reed Amar, Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale University; Sherrilyn Ifill, professor of law at the University of Maryland Law School; Timothy Lewis, former federal judge for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit; Nina Pillard, professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center; Jeffrey Rosen, professor of law at The George Washington University and legal affairs editor of The New Republic; Kenneth W. Starr, Dean of Pepperdine University School of Law and former U.S. Solicitor General; and Witold J. Walczak, Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.
After a brief orientation, we viewed the Constitution Center’s excellent main exhibit, “The Story of We the People,” a stirring and emotional overview of America’s struggle for independence and creation of self-government. I get choked up every time I see that presentation. It accurately reflects the doubts, fears and strengths of Americans and the desire to extend freedom to those who were historically deprived of it.
The Constitution is the blueprint for America’s political and legal system, but the rights we’re granted under it are fragile and must constantly be maintained. Freedom and liberty are greater than cynicism and tyranny, something I believe many in this country are forgetting.
Each Jennings Fellow received a packet containing a pocket-sized copy of the U.S. Constitution and two books: “In Search of America” by Peter Jennings and Todd Brewster and “Peter Jennings: A Reporter’s Life.”
We had to analyze a federal case with a faculty member and develop our own findings, which we then reported back to the group.
Kenneth Starr facilitated my group, which analyzed Morse v. Frederick, a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court school speech case. The case stemmed from a 2002 incident at the Juneau-Douglas High School in Juneau, Alaska where students were excused from classes to watch the Olympic torch pass through their town. Student, Joseph Frederick and his friends displayed a 14-foot banner that read “BONG HiTS 4 JESUS” across the street from the school. Principal Deborah Morse ran across the streets and grabbed the banner and suspended Frederick ten days.
The fellows ruled 4-3 that Frederick’s free speech was violated.
I delivered my group’s minority opinion, which supported the principal’s decision to discipline Frederick.
Starr was a very affable, cordial person and dynamic litigator who was unfortunately demonized as solicitor general during the whole Bill Clinton investigation. As our facilitator, he talked us through the case and allowed us to explore the issue of student free speech deeper. Plus, he rewarded us with Ghirardelli chocolates whenever we contributed.
In my book, he who dispenseth chocolates and wisdom shall be doubly blessed.
We also heard a moot court case at the James A. Byrne U.S. Federal District Courthouse about rationing health care in favor of citizens over immigrants after a fictitious pandemic strikes the country.
We also heard two panel discussions at the F.M. Kirby Auditorium in the Constitution Center.
“The Long War,” explored constitutional issues during a protracted military conflict and consisted of moderator Terry Moran of ABC News, retired Army Vice Chief of Staff General Jack Keane, Yale Law School Professor Bruce Ackerman and Brigadier General H.R. McMaster.
“Behind the Scenes: Arguing Before the High Court” focused on litigator’s experiences with the Supreme Court and included moderator Jeffrey Toobin, legal analyst for CNN, Nina Pillard, professor of law at Georgetown University, Lisa S. Blatt, of Arnold & Porter LLP, Richard Lazarus, professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center and Kenneth Starr, Dean of Pepperdine University School of Law.
We were charged with writing three stories this year that incorporate what we’ve learned. The stories would be published on the Peter Jennings Project blog.
I am honored to be a Jennings Fellow. The people I met were an impressive cross-section of media, law and academia and I am humbled to be among such distinguished company. The overall experience solidified my commitment as a journalist and gave me a new appreciation for the Constitution and the Supreme Court's role in preserving our rights.