Like most Americans, we have been taught that the basic freedoms in the First Amendment (as well as those in the other nine amendments that constitute the Bill of Rights) are protected by way of their inclusion in the Constitution. The framers were clear that the powers of government must be curtailed to some degree to protect the people from tyranny. Yet, the First Amendment’s true power manifests most potently when the people transform the text from words on paper to political and civic participation through the assertion of these rights in the public square, within institutions, and in all aspects of everyday life. To carry out this responsibility, the people must be encouraged to learn about the First Amendment, its role in the American social, legal and political systems; the mechanisms by which they can assert the rights within it; and the current political, economic and social context that may threaten the freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution.
The Pittsburgh Foundation and The Heinz Endowments, with counsel from a national advisory committee, invited local and national speakers to share their views on current threats to First Amendment freedoms in the United States and around the world. Speakers included journalists, political leaders, historians, legal scholars, faith leaders, artists and others whose lives have been impacted by efforts to curtail fundamental freedoms. Conference participants represent multiple points of view and ideologies, but they share a deep concern for the current and future state of American democracy. They also share the strongly held conviction that the power to strengthen and preserve democracy lies with the people, who must be prepared to assert and defend their freedoms when they are under threat.
The conference was organized around the following Theory of Change: A strong democracy requires that the people are informed about and understand their rights and believe they can freely express their views without fear of government reprisal. An informed public requires that the people have access to, and can trust, a free press that provides reliable, timely and relevant information about critical issues that impact their lives. If the people understand their rights and believe they have the power to express their points of view and associate with one another in a free and unfettered manner, they will, individually and with other like-minded individuals in their communities, assert those rights and work collectively for the common good.
The First Amendment Conference launches a year of programming, organized by The Pittsburgh Foundation with support from The Heinz Endowments. These programs and activities will be designed to increase civic dialogue and participation around issues of freedom and democracy. We will be working with our grantees and the people they serve to determine the content and nature of this programming. We will establish collaborations with libraries, community centers, artists and arts organizations, local school districts, faith-based organizations and others to create and host these programs. The goal is to foster a deeper understanding regarding the role of individuals and communities in working for the common good, transcending the divisions among people, and strengthening and protecting our democracy.
-- Jeanne Pearlman, Ph.D., senior vice president, Program and Policy
We hope that the video pieces from the conference and the story titled, "Philanthropy and The First Amendment" will inspire you in whatever roles you have as a resident in the Pittsburgh region, or elsewhere, to transfer the words of the First Amendment from parchment to civic participation; and from “my rights” to “our rights” as Americans.