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Constitution lecture focuses on freedom of expression, First Amendment in digital era

By Stephen Underwood
On September 21, 2011

This year's Constitution Day speaker, John Palfrey, professor and vice dean for library and information resources at Harvard Law School, lectured about freedom of expression in the digital world.

A crowd filled Konover Auditorium, located in the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center Monday for the Seventh Annual Constitution Day, the yearly UConn tradition draws a variety of speakers and topics each year in celebration of the United States' Constitution.

Peter J. Nicholls, provost of academic affairs, gave the opening remarks. "We always have had a great Constitution Day tradition," Nicholls said. "Previous discussion topics have focused on women's suffrage, slavery, civil rights, civil liberties and many other issues." He also added that UConn's "committee has chosen the perfect speaker for this occasion."

Following Nicholls' remarks, Jeremy Paul, dean of UConn's Law School, spoke about the irony of the occasion.

"It is fitting we meet on the school day after President Susan Herbst's inauguration Friday, since this is about civic awareness and engagement, something that was stressed upon during Friday's ceremony," Paul said.

After the opening statements, Palfrey took the stage to loud applause. His lecture focused on the importance of an open web to stimulate democracy and the freedoms that are guaranteed by the Constitution. He also discussed issues such as censorship and Internet blocking and restriction throughout the world.

"What I want to do is make an argument today about what kind of a world we want to live in during this digital age," Palfrey said. "I argue we keep the net open and free."

Palfrey cited incidents around the world where the Internet became restricted due to protest and resistance, which led to government attempts to silence communication between citizens.

"A few years ago, monks staged a protest in Myanmar against the government," he said. "However, the interesting thing was protests were also occurring throughout the world due to the Internet. Therefore, the state restricted Internet access for just a few hours at night because they didn't want it to be used as a tool for the protesters."

Palfrey also cited the most recent incident of Internet restriction in Egypt. Recounting President Hosni Mubarak's shut down of all Internet services in and out of the country due to the growing revolt over the government regime. Palfrey argued that this in turn might have had an adverse effect that caused many citizens to take to the streets instead of the blogosphere.

"The Internet shutdown in Egypt was more severe due to the countries high volume of usage," Palfrey said. "This most likely had adverse effects other than what President Mubarak anticipated."

Palfrey then talked about the Internet's relevance to the Constitution.

"The First and Fourth Amendments are the most important to keeping the Internet open and free," he said. "Freedom of expression has kept the Internet free and has restricted it from being blocked in the States. Also, the Fourth Amendment, which protects individual rights, calls for due process and individual liberties to keep bloggers and users safe from unwarranted surveillance."

Palfrey ended the lecture by discussing the importance of activism and how citizens can be the best agent in guaranteeing a free and open web.

"Resistance to government controls comes from citizens," he said, adding, "I don't think such technology leads to democracies but it can lead to fostering activism."

Palfreys book, "Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives" is available at the UConn Co-op.


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