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Charles L. Overby, chairman and CEO of the Freedom Forum and a staunch defender of the First Amendment, accepted the annual Judson-Rice award from Baptists Today April 22. The award luncheon was held at Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.

Overby has been involved in journalism throughout his life, beginning as a paper boy, leading his high school paper to receive a national award, and guiding The Clarion-Ledger in his hometown of Jackson, Miss. to a Pulitzer Prize for public service in 1983. In his work with the Gannett Company, publishers of USA Today, he covered the White House, presidential campaigns, Congress, and the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 1981, Overby was named president and CEO of the Gannett Foundation, which was renamed the Freedom Forum in 1991. In his role with the Freedom Forum, Overby heads the Diversity Institute, which provides training and promotes a diverse workforce in the news. He also led in the development of the popular Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue, a $350 million project that celebrates First Amendment freedoms, including that of a free press.

Overby insisted that the architect incorporate elements of the First Amendment into the facade of the Newseum building, resulting in a 74 ft. high marble wall that contains the full text of the amendment that guarantees freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the freedom of peaceful assembly, and the freedom to petition the government for grievances.

“The First Amendment suffers from people not knowing what it means,” Overby said in remarks to participants at the ceremony. Many people fail to understand the role of the First Amendment in guaranteeing basic freedoms, he said, making the role of the Newseum as a “fun, educational, and inspiring” destination particularly important.

With regard to religious freedom, some Americans think faith doesn’t really matter in everyday life, Overby said, while others would “give up freedom for a theocracy.” What we need is an awareness that faith does matter, he said, but cannot be compelled. “The genius of America is that we all are allowed to believe as we wish,” Overby said, pledging that the Freedom Forum will continue working to promote understanding and appreciation of First Amendment liberties.

Though he commutes to Washington, D.C., Overby and his wife, Andrea, live in Nashville and are active members of First Baptist Church there, where Overby taught Sunday School for a number of years.

The Judson-Rice Award was created in 2001 to celebrate the contributions of early Baptist leaders Adoniram Judson, Ann Hasseltine Judson, and Luther Rice, and to recognize a current Baptist leader who has demonstrated significant leadership skills while maintaining the highest integrity.

[Top photo: Baptists Today board member Jimmy Allen, Charles Overby, and Baptists Today editor Johnny Pierce.]

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