The power of free speech: D. Watkins and the Freedom Forum

Writer D. Watkins joined Freedom Forum at Morgan State University to discuss the power of free speech on college campuses on Tuesday.


Jordan D. Brown

The Freedom Forum, a nonpartisan foundation, hosted a conversation with D. Watkins on Tuesday at Morgan State University.

Raven Roberts, Staff Writer

In a March 2022 survey of over 800 respondents, Freedom Forum found that 64 percent of people say college campuses should foster a free exchange of ideas. However, many don’t fully understand their first amendment rights or are afraid to exercise them. 

The nonpartisan foundation hosted an open discussion with Baltimore native D. Watkins as a part of its 1A Campus Tour, where they visit college campuses to discuss free speech for students.

Watkins is a bestselling author, Editor-at-Large for Salon, and a writer on HBO’s We Own This City. 

Watkins’ book “We Speak For Ourselves,” was Enoch Pratt Free Library’s 2020 One Book Baltimore selection, and inspired the conversation around free speech with Freedom Forum.

Freedom Forum fellow Lata Nott, a first amendment expert, and senior legal counsel at Campaign Legal Center, joined Watkins in conversation. Nott facilitated the conversation before turning it over to the audience to ask questions.

When asked about how the first amendment has affected his career, Watkins spoke about the challenges he has faced while working in the media, and how his free speech has been restricted. 

“In this country, the people who have the most things, have the most power,” he said. 

Specifically, he recalled earlier in his career when his editors refused to publish certain stories that he wrote. However, the more awards he accumulated, the more he was allowed to say what he wanted because he was viewed as having the credentials to do so. 

“You have to unlock certain levels, which means the system is flawed,” he continued. 

This sentiment of free speech restriction in the media hit home for many student journalists in the audience, like junior multimedia journalism major Julani Salters. 

“I felt like many of the topics discussed were relative to my major as well [as] my personal experiences navigating the field as a young journalist,” Salters said. “Especially dealing with fighting to use his voice in his workplace and exercising his right of free speech to do so.”

When asked what students can do to exercise their first amendment rights, Watkins urged students to be honest and live their truth in everything they do. 

“We have to be honest with ourselves and say how we feel even if it’s dangerous or we won’t grow, we’ll be just like this 50 years from now,” he said. 

Watkins answered questions from the audience about free speech and pondered the difference between free speech for individuals like Donald Trump and someone like himself. “This is a game. Understand the rules of the game. The rules for Donald Trump [are] not the rules for me.” 

The conversation allowed not only students, but other members of the community to connect their experiences with Watkins’, and be inspired by his honesty and character.