One on 1 with Gene Policinski

“Educating people about their five freedoms is a life’s work”

Here’s first episode of our new interview series, One on 1. 

These short, in-depth interviews reveal how Americans practice and value their First Amendment freedoms, and will encourage you to do the same.  

Today, we’re sitting down and interviewing Gene Policinski, the senior fellow for the First Amendment at the Freedom Forum, and president and chief operating officer of the Freedom Forum Institute.


GENE POLICINSKI: I hear a lot of talk today about my First Amendment right to say something on Twitter. You just don’t have one.

CHRISTIAN COTZ: Hi I’m Christian Cotz, CEO at the First Amendment Museum in Augusta, Maine.

Today I’m joined by Gene Policinski who’s been involved with the Freedom Forum, the foundation behind the Newseum, and the Freedom Forum Institute. Gene’s had a long career in journalism and was a founding editor of the USA Today newspaper.

Today, the First Amendment Museum is honored to include Gene on our board as our board secretary. So thanks for being with us today, Gene.

GENE POLICINSKI: Good to be with you Christian.

CHRISTIAN COTZ: Why do you think the First Amendment is important? What is its purpose or goal?

GENE POLICINSKI: It really drives our democracy. It really fuels change. It’s the way we talk to each other, freely, without government getting in the way.

But in the end it’s really what the founders provided for us to talk to each other to get the best possible solution to the greatest number of people in the shortest amount of time.

I think that was their wish in how we use the First Amendment. To me that’s always been the fundamental reason for having it.

CHRISTIAN COTZ: How has the First Amendment intersected with your daily personal or professional life?

GENE POLICINSKI: At a very early age, I think around 10, I decided that I really liked telling people stuff.

I went into newspapers first but it was again it was that ability to tell people what was going on in their lives. You know, the First Amendment provides for a free press to be a watchdog on government but I think it’s also a watchdog on our society.

It’s also a way for us to talk to each other in ways that are very important. You know, is my child’s school lunch safe? Well, there’s a journalist out there looking at that.

That was just intriguing to me all the way through and that’s been a very common thread in my career, is that I prize those five freedoms in the First Amendment as ways to make my life better and to help make others lives better.

CHRISTIAN COTZ: Do you think that people in our society understand their First Amendment rights and do you see people using their freedoms to achieve the goals that you were talking about earlier?

GENE POLICINSKI: Well the last question is actually easier to answer today than it might have been two years ago. I think we’re seeing a lot of people use those least known freedoms, by surveys that we’ve done at the Freedom Forum, of petition and assembly.

So I’m heartened by that and I think people have an awareness of freedom of speech and freedom of press, freedom of religion has always been there for a lot of people in America although we’re seeing a lot of people now checking the box of none in the above.

They are what defines us as a society. These freedoms are what makes America unique. Certainly, no other country on the planet has anything approaching our First Amendment and the protections for those freedoms.

But on an individual basis, I call them the blue collar freedoms. We go to work with them every day. We pick up a phone and we say something good or bad about somebody in public life – never even worrying for a second that there’s some sort of secret police or monitor on the other end and we’re gonna get a knock on the door at two in the morning.

I don’t think people understand them in the way that I wish they would. Because sometimes we’ll hear, you know, “Free speech, I can say what I want.” Well no, not exactly. The First Amendment only burdens government.

Social media is one of the areas where we’re seeing the greatest sort of disconnect. I think people have a sense that Facebook and Twitter, they’re protected by the First Amendment, they can say what they want.

No. You’re dealing with a company, they have First Amendment rights to control what appears on their website. I hear a lot of talk today about my First Amendment right to say something on Twitter. You just don’t have one.

Now, do I wish that you did? In some ways, yes. You know, someone needs to moderate that conversation because we don’t want deliberate distortions, misinformation. Hate speech, though protected by the First Amendment, is it something that Twitter wants to be known for? Probably not, that’s their First Amendment right to draw that line, and frankly, if I don’t like it start, my own Twitter.

We’re seeing that already with some of the social media where there’s a new conservative site, I think it’s called Parler, which is cropping up because they don’t feel they’re able to express themselves fully on some other social media sites that already exist.

And that’s what the founders basically wanted to do. You want to protect your First Amendment rights against the government. After that, it’s really up to us in the marketplace of ideas to express ourselves and to get enough people to listen to maybe adopt and think the way we.

CHRISTIAN COTZ: Outside of your role at the Freedom Forum, how how do you exercise your First Amendment rights on a regular basis?

GENE POLICINSKI: Because I work for a nonpartisan nonprofit and now a trustee of the First Amendment Museum, I do look to how my actions reflect on the institutions to which I belong.

Because I think it’s very important both the Freedom Forum and the First Amendment Museum are nonpartisan. The irony is I probably self-govern my own First Amendment freedoms a little tighter.

But educating people about their five freedoms is a life’s work. So I find I can say things about those freedoms and frankly my wife and others can handle the political side of the spectrum for me.

CHRISTIAN COTZ: If you had one wish for the people of the United States that had to do with their First Amendment rights, what would that wish be?

GENE POLICINSKI: I wish that people knew more about their freedoms in the objective way. What are they, how do they apply, what are the things we need to look out for? And they lived their freedoms.

If we live our freedoms it implies sort of being a participatory citizen. It commands you to listen to others. The marketplace of ideas – what good is if there’s one stand? I mean you want a whole bunch of stands and you want to pick the best idea. So I think that live your freedoms is probably my most profound wish for America.

CHRISTIAN COTZ: Well that’s certainly what we’re aiming to do here. Inspire people to do that, to live their freedoms.

Thanks for talking to us today, Gene, and thanks to everybody who’s out there listening.

Stay tuned for more One on 1. We’ll be back.