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University of Missouri

First Amendment Responder

MU law professor Christina Wells speaks on speech.

Edward Snowden protest

Demonstrators hold a banner bearing the image of Edward Snowden with a message of thanks during a protest against government surveillance Oct. 26, 2013, in Washington, D.C. Photo © Getty Images.

If you want to incite lively discussion, bring up the First Amendment at a law school.

Christina Wells, Enoch H. Crowder Professor of Law, wouldn’t have it any other way. When she’s not unpacking constitutional nuance in her courses on administrative law, gender and the law, and freedom of speech, Wells is sharing her perspective with the New York Times, USA Today and Christian Science Monitor.

In July 2013, she wrote about the Edward Snowden case for Jurist, a legal research website. Snowden, a former government employee and contractor, disclosed to newspaper reporters classified information about U.S. intelligence activities. The case sparked controversy about freedom of the press concerning sensitive government material.

“These types of situations tend to bring up a binary response,” Wells says. “Either Snowden is a whistle-blower or a traitor. My sense is he’s not a traitor in that he’s clearly not guilty of treason. But I’m not sure he’s a hero either — in the legal definition or in the overblown characterizations of him. He’s a person, and his actions are complicated.”

Snowden was charged with crimes under the Espionage Act, which Wells argues is worrisome because the broadly written laws make it too easy to charge individuals with treason.

“Many people think of constitutional law as primarily about theory and ‘great thoughts,’ and there is an aspect that holds true to that,” Wells says. “But at their core, free speech disputes are about mundane, everyday things — what you are able to say on your license plate, whether you can hand out a flier at school.”