Understanding the Burden of Speech

Isabella Dominique headshot
By Isabella Dominique, AU SPA ’20

As a junior at American University, I have spent a lot of time thinking about campus climate and the way we talk to each other. I learned about the differing perspectives and backgrounds that are present at AU and how that might impact students’ participation in discussion. As a black woman on this campus, I have taken the time to better understand the role of my allies in difficult conversations. I realized that challenging dialogues often place a heavy burden on minorities to not only defend our ideas, but ourselves. And as someone who worked extensively to bring the Civil Discourse program to life, I have come to understand the many ways in which all AU students can significantly benefit from an increased understanding of civility, but also in drawing the line between when engaging conversations help people understand and when they do more harm than good.

I began working with Professor Schwartz on the program in the Fall of 2017. As we piloted the program, I was responsible for coordinating with students as they created their own solutions to campus climate issues. We hosted several events that gave students the opportunities to identify the biggest issues and best solutions regarding campus climate. Then, in spring semester 2018, the program entered its research stage. I spent time reading about the difficulties other schools have faced with campus speakers and general intolerance from both sides of the political spectrum. I also hosted several focus groups with students to better understand varying opinions and perspectives regarding speech, intolerance, and civility. Now, I will continue working with Professor Schwartz’s team to facilitate more campus discussions.

When I first began working on the Civil Discourse program, I remember feeling extraordinarily passionate about freedom of speech. I felt that the First Amendment was one of the most important pieces of American law and should be protected by any means necessary. In every class I have taken about the Constitution or the Bill of Rights, I have always found myself defending our right to say almost anything we want to. Regardless of my identity as a black woman, I knew that it was important that hate speech and political speech receive the highest level of protection – I thought I had skin thick enough to endure most things someone could say to me.

I was able to ask students difficult questions that aimed to address the root issues that prompted the need for civil discourse both at AU and around the nation. While I will always continue to find free speech important and essential, I have begun to better understand how identity, privilege, and perspective alter an individual’s experience with speech and civility. This is not to say that free speech is no longer productive, but instead that it presents a complicated challenge to people who bear greater burdens.

During my time researching, discussing with the team, and hosting focus groups in the Spring semester, my opinion regarding the First Amendment evolved. However, much of this evolution stemmed from the focus groups because I was able to better understand the ways in which different people understood their role regarding speech. My partner and I posed hypothetical questions that aimed to facilitate a line-drawing exercise with the participants: Do you always respect other people’s ideas? When does it come time to shut down speech? What role do you take in conversations regarding speech? Have you ever been in a situation in which someone deeply offended your identity? How would you react if someone denied the Holocaust in a conversation with you? Most students said that they would tolerate most speech and that there is rarely a time for speech to shut down. While there were a few exceptions (i.e. students who admitted to their strong likelihood of punching Nazis), I noticed that students who did not have minority status were more willing to protect all ideas, regardless of whether they dehumanized others.

However, when I shared my own answers to the group, I realized that my willingness to listen to those ideas is far lower. This likely stems from all that I know about my African American history and my womanhood, but I had never before realized the role my identity plays in both my tolerance and the strain we feel in these conversations. After a semester’s worth of focus groups, I concluded that often times the notion of respecting all ideas places an undue burden on minorities. The focus groups gave me the power to realize how deeply my blackness impacted my patience and capacity to listen to bigotry because of the direct impact it has on me. With that, I was left to wonder how civil discourse can encourage all students to use their privilege to create a positive and healthy learning environment.

I recognize that even though I value my worth as a black woman over the need to respect bigoted ideas, I still, and always will, have more to learn about what productive discussions look like. While I learned last semester that I am more vulnerable when I am put in situations with hateful individuals, I do understand that this does not make me immune from learning more about interacting with our passionate and politically-active peers. At the beginning of my civil discourse journey, I often found myself fiercely defending the First Amendment in its entirety. I knew I had a thick skin and would be able tolerate most hate speech. However, as I interacted with more of my AU peers, I learned that there was a distinct disconnect regarding the people on which the burden of free speech falls. Moving forward, I am eager to learn more about how we can present opposing views in a productive way that respects each other’s identities and takes the unequal burdens of our free speech rights into account.

Isabella Dominique is a junior at American University double-majoring in CLEG and Political Science and minoring in SIS. She currently serves as the Vice President of AU’s NAACP chapter as well as the Co-President of the AU Pre-Law Society. She is also leading an Alternative Break to Kingston, Jamaica to study slavery and reparations in the Caribbean.

Weekly News Digest, No. 1

Welcome to the first installment of the Project on Civil Discourse’s Weekly News Digest, hosted on our Real Talk blog. Each week, the Digest will gather recent articles and stories about civil discourse and campus speech. The Digest will highlight upcoming events as well, such as the Project’s first event of the fall semester: Conversation with Josh Blackman.

Next Thursday, September 27th, Professor Josh Blackman will be speaking at the Washington College of Law about diversity of opinion and campus speech. He will be joined by Professor Lara Schwartz, director of the Project on Civil Discourse. This event will be held at 12:00PM in Warren NT07 on the WCL Tenley campus, and will be cohosted by the Project on Civil Discourse and the WCL’s chapter of the Federalist Society.

Blackman teaches at the South Texas College of Law in Houston, where he specializes in constitutional law, the United States Supreme Court, and the intersection of law and technology. Visit his website to learn more about him and to view past lectures and articles.

Campus Speech News

The University of Colorado Board of Regents unanimously voted last week to change their policies on academic freedom and freedom of expression. At the meeting, university counsel Patrick O’Rourke said, “We can establish a culture that both balances free speech rights but that expects civility and respect from those who are part of the community.” After the vote, the University of Colorado Boulder launched a webpage explaining their definition of and policies on free expression.

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University of Southern California Provost Michael Quick released a statement on Sunday condemning hate speech as “dehumanizing, degrading, toxic, and vile” after leaked screenshots revealed a USC graduate student participated in a chatroom that organized the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va. in August 2017. While the university cannot prevent the student from coming to campus, Dean Yannis Yortos said the student has volunteered not to come to campus while the university conducts an investigation.

Essays on Civil Discourse

Last week, The Economist hosted Steve Bannon at the Open Future festival, resisting public pressure that led The New Yorker to disinvite Bannon from their annual festival. After The Economist announced Bannon would attend, journalist, essayist, and activist Laurie Penny stated she would no longer participate in her panel. Penny explains her choice in an essay titled “No, I Will Not Debate You,” which touches on the far right’s focus on the ethics of disseminating speech rather than its content, the marketplace of ideas, and civility in speech.

“Moderate liberalism cherishes the idea of ‘civility’ because it allows it to believe in its own goodness and relevance.”

Penny’s discussion of civility calls to mind an essay written by Ibram X. Kendi titled “More Devoted to Order Than to Justice.” Writing after Rep. Maxine Waters called for supporters to harass Trump administration officials and the ensuring Democratic backlash, Kendi argues that meaningful change requires confrontation and harassment, not civility.

On its face, Kendi’s thesis seems to diametrically oppose civil discourse. But as future Real Talk posts will explore, not all ideas or viewpoints are created equal, nor do they always deserve civil debate.

Next week, Real Talk will feature a guest post by an American University student who helped create and shape the Project on Civil Discourse during its pilot year, as well as our second Weekly News Digest. Thanks for reading!

Introducing American University’s Project on Civil Discourse

After the presidential election, my relationship with many of my friends and classmates changed – especially those back home in Ohio. I couldn’t reconcile what I heard them say with the people I thought I knew. I couldn’t understand, let alone relate to, their thoughts and positions on the issues that were directly affecting my classmates at American University. I desperately wanted to learn about the roots of their beliefs, but I couldn’t see past words I saw as ignorant or hateful.

On the night of the election itself, I watched personal relationships dissolve as my dormmates reacted to the results in their own way. When I went to class the next morning, these dormmates turned into classmates and that tension remained. As students at American, we’re familiar with the ideological conflicts that play out in any politically-oriented class, but after the election it was different. Everything had become so much more serious and real.

These struggles – ones that have become familiar to many over the past months and years – led to my interest in the Project on Civil Discourse. The Project encourages productive, truthful discourse that contributes to our learning community and the world around us. It encourages students to understand speech not just as a matter of rights, but of responsibilities, values, and opportunities. Using the Building My Voice tool as a starting point, each of us must decide how and why we choose to use our voice in our community. And it’s not just what we say ourselves, but how we listen and engage in a dialogue with others.

By making deliberate choices about how we listen and use our voices, we realize our responsibility for the things we say and we begin to productively contribute to our community.

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College is an all-encompassing community, tying one’s personal, academic, and professional lives together with few boundaries. At the nation’s most politically active university, this creates a passionate, tension-filled environment. Looking back at the climate on campus after the election, I wish my peers and I had the tools and resources necessary to solve our problems in the classrooms and dorms. 

Through peer-led discussions and workshops, teaching resources for faculty, and distinguished guest speakers, the Project on Civil Discourse will help to make that wish a reality. Based in the School of Public Affairs, the Project will operate university-wide by the 2019-20 school year, where it will help students gain the skills and understanding they need to engage in productive, truthful discourse. This will further American University’s mission as an institution of higher education, while teaching students how to engage in their communities after graduation.

Photo of Kerwin Hall from the Quad
Credit: American University.

I spent much of my first year at American listening to those around me talk about their perspectives and approaches to issues that I only had one understanding of while growing up in the Midwest. I began to recognize how I used my voice in the classroom and around campus, both in what I said and how I said it. As I work for the Project on Civil Discourse this year, I know I will continue to take ownership of my voice and use it to improve our American University community.

When I graduate next May, I plan to use this voice to advocate for the changes my next community needs. It’s no surprise that the national political arena frequently lacks the civil discourse we wish it had – we see that in the news every day. But many don’t realize this lack of discourse has trickled down to their local communities.

This summer, I interned for the city manager’s office in my hometown. Over the three months I was home, I watched my city’s residents repeatedly attempt to block different projects that would benefit our city. They were so firm in their opposition that they were able to stop one construction project from even entering a community feedback and planning phase. Residents spoke without listening, finally reaching a point where they were unable to even agree to hold a discussion over the issue.

Local government plays a crucial role in our everyday lives, and it’s essential that we contribute our voices to shape our communities. By training students in civil discourse principles and techniques, the Project will equip them to facilitate and contribute to the conversations that should and need to be taking place.

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I recognize that what I write is informed by my experiences alone, and that other students, faculty, and staff at American University experience our campus and political climate differently. Throughout the year, I’ll be working to give my fellow Eagles the space to share their own perspectives on civil discourse and their experiences with it, and I’ll be listening – a part of productive discourse.

To learn more about the Project on Civil Discourse, visit our website and continue to follow our blog. If you’re an undergraduate student at American and are interested in applying to become a peer facilitator, learn more here.

If you would like to share a unique perspective on civil discourse or an informative experience at American University or in your community, I encourage you to email me at dr8237a@student.american.edu.