The First Amendment’s protection of free speech is a bedrock principle for the U.S. and is considered a distinguishing characteristic of the American government. But, what exactly is meant by “speech”? Does a photograph or a silent film actually “say” anything? What about a tattoo? A Facebook like? What about computer code and algorithms? The legal understanding of what constitutes speech is always changing, as new technologies and methods of communication emerge.
IATH’s new Fellow, Jennifer Petersen, Associate Professor of Media Studies, has been pursuing these questions for the past few years. Her interest in the First Amendment stems back to her research for her book on hate speech, Murder, the Media, and the Politics of Public Feeling: Remembering Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. She started to ask what did and did not constitute hate speech. And, it turned out that there is not actually an explicit definition of speech in U.S. law. Over time, courts have been asked to determine whether a variety of communication mechanisms and methods—from silent film to Facebook to personalized computer algorithms—fall under the rubric of “speech” and are therefore subject to protection under the first amendment.
She will use her fellowship with IATH to her Archaeology of Legal Definitions of Speech, drawing on almost 500 decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court dealing with free speech between 1900-2007. This would identify and map lexical structures used to conceptualize speech over time, finding points of change and resistance. She will then place those changes within the context of the technical and intellectual history of the idea of communication in the U.S. during this period. She is also working on a book on free speech, which will survey legal articulations of speech in the 20th century within the cultural context of key decisions and debates and the ever-changing technology of communication.
An Associate Fellowship for 2015-2016 has also been awarded to Derrick Aldridge, Professor in the Social Foundations of Education Program in the Curry School of Education, for his Teachers in the Movement project (currently housed here). The project focuses on oral history interviews with elementary, secondary, and university teachers and educators who taught during the U.S. Civil Rights Movement in Virginia and throughout the U.S. South.
Brad Pasanek, Assistant Professor of English, also received an Associate Fellowship for his Poetic Diction: Tokens and Change project. His work centers on building a corpora of 17th and 18th century poetry in order to model changes in word choice, rhymings, periphrases, and classical allusions over time.