The Pittsburgh Foundation

The First Amendment in divisive times: A free summer conference to reassert value of basic freedoms

June 21-22 event to focus on threats and community responses

PITTSBURGH, Pa., June 4, 2018 – UPDATED JUNE 18 – The First Amendment, the bedrock of American freedom, is facing unprecedented challenges that threaten to undermine our democratic institutions. In response, The Pittsburgh Foundation and The Heinz Endowments are co-hosting a conference, June 21 and 22, Downtown. Community leaders, residents, educators, students, legal professionals, elected officials, artists and members of the media will hear directly from national and regional experts about the First Amendment’s vital role in ensuring thriving communities.

The First Amendment for the 21st Century: Current Threats and Community Responses conference is organized to explore the First Amendment guarantees covering freedom of religion, expression, the press, public assembly and government petition. Among those headlining the event will be April Ryan, White House correspondent and Washington, D.C. bureau chief for American Urban Radio Networks; Mickey Edwards, Republican member of Congress representing Oklahoma’s 5th Congressional District for 16 years, and now vice president of the Aspen Institute and lecturer at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs; and Indira Lakshmanan, Newmark Chair in Journalism Ethics at the Poynter Institute and columnist for The Boston Globe.

Newly added to the agenda is an interview by Grant Oliphant, president of The Heinz Endowments, with Rob Rogers, who, until he was fired last week, was an editorial cartoonist with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for 25 years.

The event is free but seating is limited to 400. As of Friday, June 15, the event reached capacity. Waiting list requests may be made at The event will be presented June 21 at the August Wilson Center, 980 Liberty Ave.; and on June 22, at the Creative and Performing Arts School, 111 9th St.

In announcing the conference, Oliphant and Maxwell King, president and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation, cited their shared philanthropic goal of improving civic engagement on issues that are critically important to the future of the region.

“We view this conference as a much-needed response to some alarming signs that our First Amendment freedoms are being eroded in a period of unprecedented political divisiveness,” said Oliphant. “The conference will examine the threats and offer responses that show the First Amendment as a unifying force important to all of us as Americans, no matter our backgrounds, economic circumstances or political ideologies.”

King said he has been concerned by national polling that shows lack of knowledge and appreciation for the critical role that First Amendment freedoms play in ensuring strong democratic institutions. “We are counting on this conference to begin transforming the words of the First Amendment from parchment to political and civic participation in the 21st century public square,” he said.

In addition to sponsorship by the two foundations, the conference is being presented in affiliation with Media Impact Funders, a national member-supported network of philanthropies that seek to improve society through best-practice use of media and technology.

Conference themes include how threats to the First Amendment weaken democracy; how college students view basic freedoms; whether right-to-know laws enhance First Amendment powers; the role of artists in elevating free expression; and how technology can advance or inhibit exercise of basic freedoms. The full list of speakers, their bios and the conference agenda may be found at

In addition to Ryan, Edwards and Lakshmanan, sessions will feature these other regional and national figures:

  • Mila Sanina, executive director of PublicSource; and Wasi Mohamed, executive director of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh;
  • Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University and former deputy legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union and director of the ACLU’s Center for Democracy; 
  • Andrew Conte, founding director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University; and Bobbie Stempfley of the Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie Mellon University; 
  • Trevor Timm, co-founder and executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation.

Art, music and multimedia: The conference will also include photography from the International Free Expression Project; conversations with artists Jasiri X and Vanessa German, and performances from Pittsburgh CAPA students. Another artistic highlight of the conference will be a conversation with Lakshmanan and award-winning documentary filmmaker Brian Knappenberger, who will present selected scenes from his documentary “Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press,” a chilling account of threats to press freedom as viewed through the lens of the Gawker-Hulk Hogan libel case.

All sessions are meant to motivate attendees to consider the importance of the First Amendment and what they can do, as citizens, artists, leaders and advocates, to protect the essential freedoms that it confers. Sessions have been developed to promote lively discussion and audience participation. Breaks also have been scheduled to encourage networking and collaboration.

The Pittsburgh Foundation will extend its commitment to increase awareness and appreciation for the First Amendment with a second conference co-sponsored with Duquesne University on its campus Oct. 22. The National Conference on the First Amendment: The Bedrock for American Freedoms is intended to provide legal, academic and journalistic validation of the First Amendment as a foundational value that all Americans share and support regardless of political or ideological views.

This event also is free of charge and will be presented at Duquesne University’s Power Center Ballroom. While registration is not yet open, speakers and panelists will be nationally-known experts in journalism, politics, law, higher education and civic advocacy. Details on that developing agenda are available at


Doug Root
The Pittsburgh Foundation

John Ellis
The Heinz Endowments