Mark Witherspoon receives First Amendment Days Award


Photo by Katherine Kealey/Iowa State Daily

Former Iowa State Daily newspaper Adviser Mark Witherspoon began his career as a journalist in 1976 and went on to serve as a news editor and newspaper adviser at two colleges in Texas before coming to Iowa State.

Katherine Kealey

The First Amendment Committee granted Mark Witherspoon with the first ever Champion of the First Amendment award which was inspired in his honor. 

Witherspoon, or commonly referred to as the “father of First Amendment Days,” founded First Amendment Days 20 years ago. This week-long event is the longest continually running First Amendment celebration hosted by any university in the nation. 

This year’s First Amendment Days took place from April 10-15 with the theme “Dare to Speak, Dare to Listen.” Michael Dahlstrom, a professor and director of Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication, said because of the freedoms granted to the press they have a responsibility to use those for the betterment of society. 

“First Amendment Days has done such a great job at really uplifting that social responsibility,” Dahlstrom said. “This year’s theme was perfect, dare to speak, which is getting it out there, but dare to listen is that responsibility freedom for doing something better.”

The award was established to distinguish Iowa State University and the Greenlee School of Journalism as a champion of free expression and will be granted to individuals or public entities that present commitment to free speech. 

The First Amendment Committee is charged with administering the award, and a plaque will be placed in Hamilton Hall in Witherspoon’s honor. He was also gifted $500. 

Witherspoon served as the Iowa State Daily newspaper adviser for over 20 years in addition to being a lecturer at Iowa State University. Before his employment in Iowa, he was a newspaper adviser for two universities in Texas, after working as a reporter at Wichita Falls Record News and the Fort Worth Star Telegram. He then went back to the Wichita Falls Times and Record News for four years as city news editor.

“We really wanted to show the importance of this work we do, a lot of it is behind the scenes,” said Julie Roosa, an adjunct assistant professor for the Greenlee School. “It is thankless work sometimes, but you [Witherspoon] have been front and center for all these years and more than just the 20 years of First Amendment Days, but really throughout your entire career.”

Other universities have implemented First Amendment celebrations and events. Witherspoon said many did not survive the pandemic, but Iowa State’s persisted. 

“Not that this is a competition, but obviously there are enough people here who think this is so important that we need to continue it when we can’t even gather,” Witherspoon said. “We have assembly through Zoom, and it is still assembly.”

On average, only nine percent of people can correctly identify all five freedoms. Witherspoon said students involved in the First Amendment Committee play an important role in informing peers about the amplification of the five freedoms. Roosa has helped manage First Amendment Days for the last five years, and she took over many of  Witherspoon’s responsibilities following his retirement. Roosa also serves as the First Amendment specialist for Iowa State University.

“I don’t know why every journalism school in the United States doesn’t have a Juile Roosa to teach us not only how they [the five freedoms] work together but how we can work together to maintain the First Amendment,” Witherspoon said. “I am happy that we are continuing this, and hopefully Julie can continue along with us.”