In the past three years, the John C. West Forum on Politics and Policy has brought in speakers from Washington, D.C.; College Station, Texas and Milliken University in Ill. to discuss and honor Constitution Day each September.
Harvard-educated attorney Stephen Cox only needed to travel up Cherry Road last Wednesday to deliver his lecture on free speech and the First Amendment. The Rock Hill-based lawyer spoke on historical and recent matters of the U.S. Constitution in front of a packed Dina’s Place Theater Wednesday morning.
Constitution Day was established following legislation from Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), which proposed to honor Sept. 17, the anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution.
“We should be proud to celebrate the Constitution,” Cox said, “but it is our responsibility to reflect on it and ask questions on what it means to us.”
Free speech, he said, is held “most sacred” by Americans, but the right has proven most fragile over the course of American history.
Cox pointed to the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which made it unlawful to write anything disparaging about the president under John Quincy Adams’ administration. Federalist prosecutors of the day went to work and imprisoned several journalists and freethinkers . It was only until Thomas Jefferson that the law was disbanded; ending what Cox calls the “saddest and earliest chapters of the First Amendment.”
“It has sometimes been ignored, watered down,” Cox said. “We want to make sure it’s not just an empty promise.”
Cox pointed out that free speech tends to become more restricted during times of conflict in American than in times of peace, referencing the case of Schenck v. United States, where a Socialist man was arrested after printing and distributing 15,000 leaflets to men urging them to oppose the draft for World War I.
Katarina Moyon, co-director of the West Forum, said she was happy with the turnout and hoped that the students would take away several lessons from Cox’s lecture.
“I think it’s important to get people together to talk about the different amendments,” she said. “We all think that they’re enshrined in law, but don’t necessarily know what the protections are that we have.”
Cox currently works at the law firm of Robinson, Bradshaw & Hinson, where he helps businesses in complex litigation and arbitration matters. He was named as one of the “Best Lawyers in America” for 2014 and has received recognition in the areas of banking and finance law, commercial litigation, construction law, employment law and real estate law.