Weekly News Digest, No. 25

Crowd standing in a public square

Welcome to the twenty-fifth installment of the Project on Civil Discourse’s Weekly News Digest, hosted on our Real Talk blog.

In Case You Missed It

Earlier this semester, the Project on Civil Discourse hosted two events on political discourse, which were recorded, captioned, and just published to our YouTube channel. Make sure to subscribe!

In March, Tyler Lewis spoke about the importance of value-driven political communication and the role of conviction and authenticity in how political figures are perceived. Lewis is the Director of Coalition Communications and Research at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

In April, Louis Michael Seidman spoke about his work, “Can Free Speech Be Progressive?” Seidman is the Carmack Waterhouse Professor of Constitutional Law at Georgetown Law. 

Campus Free Speech

Professor Neal Hutchens reports that while campus free speech laws are being enacted in a number of states, they may do more harm than good. Generally, these laws prohibit “speech zones,” or specific places on campuses where students can protest or speak, and require universities to remain neutral on controversial issues.

Robby Soave writes that free speech on campus isn’t dead yet, but it is struggling. Soave offers a short summary of his new book, Panic Attack: Young Radicals in the Age of Trump, as he argues that there is a free speech problem at colleges and universities across the United States. Soave notes that the majority of campuses and speakers engage in diverse and stimulating conversations, but that “many campuses possess a small number of extremely far-left students who view speech that discomforts them as a threat to their mental well-being.”

Intellectual Diversity

Shannon Watkins writes about a recent event with Robert George and Cornel West on the necessity of a “deep education,” which requires students to pursue opportunities that are challenging and unsettling. Why is this so important? “Because actively engaging with an ideological opponent refines one’s own understanding of an issue and can lead one closer to the central goal of all education: the pursuit of truth.”

American University student Marissa Klass wrote about a similar event with George and West last semester.

Thanks for reading!

Weekly News Digest, No. 24

Crowd standing in a public square

Welcome to the twenty-fourth installment of the Project on Civil Discourse’s Weekly News Digest, hosted on our Real Talk blog.

Student Discussions

Are you interested in the role of political, social, and racial identity in speech? Do you want to talk with your peers about campus speech, civility, or post-truth conversations?

The Project on Civil Discourse is holding twenty student discussions where a group of 8-10 students and two peer facilitators come together to talk about discourse from a variety of different angles. There are five more discussions scheduled for this year. For a list of discussions, click here. To register, click here.

Campus Speech

Last week, PEN America released a report titled “Chasm in the Classroom: Campus Free Speech in a Divided America.” Coming just days after President Trump’s executive order on campus speech, the report “debunks the Administration’s constricted account of free speech threats emanating only from the left” by analyzing more than 100 speech-related controversies. This research follows up on their initial 2016 report, “And Campus for All: Diversity, Inclusion, and Freedom of Speech at U.S. Universities.”

Writing for Inside Higher Ed, Jeremy Bauer-Wolf writes that “students on both sides of the political spectrum have engaged in unhelpful and, for conservatives, intentionally provocative behavior.” University administrators must thread the needle, both responding to legitimate grievances and reaffirming free speech.

Writing for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Katherine Mangan writes that if there is a campus free speech crisis, it is legislators that are making it worse. Colleges are “seeing more incidents of hateful expression and intimidation,” while the “Justice Department is raising politicized alarms over the state of free speech.”

Arguing and Discourse

Jesse Singal writes about erisology, or the study of unsuccessful disagreement. First introduced by John Nerst, erisology attempts to pinpoint the “divergence in people’s fundamental beliefs and assumptions” and understand why that divergence “makes them react to the world in different ways.” Singal writes specifically about decoupling, or the idea of removing “extraneous context from a given claim and debating that claim on its own.”

Trump’s Executive Order

Erin Corbett writes that President Trump’s executive order on campus free speech may be used to silence student activists. Corbett cites recent misdemeanor charges against University of Arizona students who were protesting campus visitors and who may now face jail time.

Peter Berkowitz writes that the order is an imperfect, but necessary, tool for a situation where colleges and universities have failed to act in protecting free speech and expression. While the order is “subject to abuse” and leaves “in disrepair a higher-education establishment” with systematic failures, the “perils of federal action are greatly outweighed by the catastrophe of inaction.”

Thanks for reading!

Weekly News Digest, No. 23

Crowd standing in a public square

Welcome to the twenty-third installment of the Project on Civil Discourse’s Weekly News Digest, hosted on our Real Talk blog. Last week, the regular digest was replaced with a special edition focused on President Trump’s executive order on campus free speech.

Last Monday, Kira Pyne wrote about her experiences studying abroad in Copenhagen and the importance of asking questions to understand, not to provoke or confront.

Student Discussions

Are you interested in the role of political, social, and racial identity in speech? Do you want to talk with your peers about campus speech, civility, or post-truth conversations?

The Project on Civil Discourse is holding twenty student discussions where a group of 8-10 students and two peer facilitators come together to talk about discourse from a variety of different angles. There are nine more discussions scheduled for this year. For a list of discussions, click here. To register, click here.

Family Discourse

Ashley Fetters writes in The Atlantic about how families can navigate tense, fraught political conversations. Fetters’ article features Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth Silvers, who have published a podcast and a book about this issue. Holland and Silvers recommend having conversations to understand, rather than convince, and they recognize that there are boundaries – some issues don’t have ‘both sides.’

Political Discourse

As the two-year anniversary of the deadly “Unite the Right Rally” approaches, the city of Charlottesville has been forced to redefine civility and public discourse. Former mayor Mike Signer enforced Robert’s Rules of Order, while community activist Nikuyah Walker and councilmember Wes Ballamy emphasized the difference between civility and politeness. Vice Mayor Heather Hill says that even the “very concept of civility has been polarizing here.”

Supportive Discourse

Brittany Packnett writes about her own experiences in social justice activism, arguing that “we can’t just show up for social justice issues when it impacts our own lives.” In her own words: “The cost of your silence is greater than the cost of your truth.”

Trump’s Executive Order

In the days and weeks since President Trump’s executive order on campus free speech, more analysis and commentary has been published. For an explanation of the order and the initial response, read through the special edition on the order.

Jonathan Zimmerman, professor at the University of Pennsylvania, writes that while President Trump should not be the arbiter of free speech, there is still a problem on college campuses: students, faculty, and staff don’t feel comfortable speaking their minds.

Tom Lindsay, director of the Center for Innovation in Education, writes that the order is a good first step in restoring the fundamental right to free speech on campus. Lindsay argues that free speech isn’t political because it’s the precursor to politics and debate.

Keith Whittington, professor at Princeton University and author of Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech, writes that the order is a crude tool that is unlikely to do much good and likely to do some harm. Whittington writes that it is unclear “how much this changes the status quo,” but that it does politicize “federal intervention in campus free speech issues.”

Thanks for reading!

Weekly News Digest, Special Edition on Free Speech Order

Crowd standing in a public square

Welcome to a special edition of the Project on Civil Discourse’s Weekly News Digest, hosted on our Real Talk blog. On Thursday, President Trump signed an executive order protecting free speech on the campuses of colleges and universities.

Director Lara Schwartz spoke with Wisconsin Public Radio on Monday evening about the order and its implications and legality. Listen here.

Keep reading for more analysis and reporting for different sources.

“The heads of covered agencies shall, in coordination with the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, take appropriate steps, in a manner consistent with applicable law, including the First Amendment, to ensure that institutions that receive Federal research or education grants promote free inquiry, including through compliance with all applicable Federal laws, regulations, and policies.”

President Trump first announced the executive order during a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in early March, saying that colleges and universities must support free speech in order to be eligible for federal research dollars. Weeks later, the text of the newly-signed order said just that and little more. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that the order, as written, will have little immediate impact since public colleges are already legally bound by the First Amendment and private colleges only need to comply with their institutional policies.

While individual agencies will implement the order differently and may maintain the status quo, some organizations are concerned about the political context of the order. In a statement, pro-speech group PEN America outlined several concerns with the order, including the lack of proper definitions of “appropriate steps” and “free inquiry.” In fact, PEN America argues that the order could be restrict speech if education and research funding is tied “to prevailing political winds.”

“Yet this Administration has a pronounced pattern of using its muscle to protect certain viewpoints, while either encouraging or even exacting reprisals against speech it finds objectionable or critical.”

Ella Nilsen writes that this executive order is “more symbolism than substance,” as it is a “largely symbolic move meant to satisfy a key demand of Trump’s conservative base. Nilsen also echoes the Chronicle’s point that colleges “already have to protect free speech to get federal money.”

In an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, Erwin Chemerinsky and Howard Gillman (authors of the book “Free Speech on Campus”) write that this executive order is “almost certainly” unconstitutional because of its vagueness and ambiguity. They write: “The Supreme Court long has held that any conditions on federal funds must be clearly and explicitly stated.”

Andrew Kreighbaum writes that Jerry Falwell, Jr., a key Trump Administration ally in higher education, falls short of his own rhetoric on free speech. Kreighbaum reports that Falwell has been frequently criticized for trying to censor the Liberty Champion, the university’s student newspaper. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a group that advocates for free speech on campus, actually listed Liberty “in its annual list of the 10 worst colleges for free speech.”

It’s too soon to know the impact that President Trump’s executive order will have on colleges and universities. As this unfolds in the coming days and weeks and as the federal government begins to implement the order, Real Talk will continue to provide coverage of this story and others related to discourse, civility, and speech in higher education.

Asking to Understand: Having Productive Conversations Abroad

Kira Pyne headshot
By Kira Pyne, AU SPA ’20

I have spent the past two months studying abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark at the Danish Institute for Study Abroad (DIS), focusing on terrorism and counterterrorism from a European perspective. Classes at DIS focus on learning outside of the classroom, and my terrorism course took a week-long study tour around Western Denmark learning about how Denmark works to prevent terrorism and radicalization.

Something that is important to understand about Denmark: It is a racially and culturally homogeneous society. I try not to stereotype, but it’s hard to not see that everyone whizzing by me on bicycles is blonde, tall, and dressed all in black. As a society that pays over half of its income in taxes to the government, Danes have to have similar values and beliefs about how their government should work and use their money. Denmark is consistently ranked as one of the happiest countries in the world. The Danes that I’ve met and talked with seem to be very satisfied with their quality of life and their government.

A topic that is frequently brought up in my classes is Denmark’s views on immigration. We read over a policy about immigration that essentially said Denmark was going to work as hard as it could to strictly limit immigration and keep refugees out of the country. Two of my professors explained that this was because many people want to keep Denmark as, well, Danishas possible. This article can provide more insight into the subject.

These views on immigration were certainly in the back of my mind when my terrorism class arrived at a mosque for our study tour. We were fortunate enough to be able to speak with the Imam, an official who will lead prayers, and two other male members of the mosque. My professor encouraged us to ask provocative questions and get as much of an understanding as possible on their views on religion, assimilation, and life in Denmark. To say that my classmates took this seriously was an understatement.

When my classmates asked questions to purposely provoke the men we were talking with, we didn’t end up learning much. For example, someone asked, “Are you actually trying to embrace living in Denmark?” The Imam was angry at the implication that he and the other members of the mosque were not working hard to assimilate into Danish culture, especially because many members of the mosque were born in Denmark.

But when someone asked a question with an open mind, we got so much more out of the conversation. For example, someone asked about their opinions on the new Danish law passed that has caused frustration in the Muslim community. The law requires new citizens to shake hands with Danish officials at the naturalization ceremony.

The reasoning by Danish officials for this law is that in Denmark, it is custom to shake hands when meeting someone for the first time, and shaking hands at the ceremony symbolizes people’s integration into Danish culture. When members of the Muslim community did not want to abide by this, Danish citizens assumed that Muslim people were disrespecting Danes and their culture.

What was explained to us, from the perspective of this particular mosque, is that members of their community are not supposed to touch someone of the opposite gender unless they are married or family.

I certainly did not agree with everything we discussed at the mosque, but I did get a much better perspective on productive dialogue. We are never going to agree with everyone’s opinions or ways of life. We all live our lives differently, and there is a difference between trying to learn about and understand those differences versus confronting people about their core beliefs. Asking to understand allows us to see into someone else’s world and day to day life. When we ask questions that try to reaffirm our previous beliefs, our beliefs are reaffirmed. The dialogue is closed.

Unlike Denmark, America is not a homogeneous society. Many of us come from different countries, different religions, and we certainly don’t all look the same. We have to work every day to understand the differences between ourselves and those that surround us. Too often, we jump to defend our own opinions and react with frustration when someone questions those beliefs.

In a time where our country is extremely divided, asking questions to understand, rather than to change another’s opinion, is more important than ever. We don’t have to agree, but without understanding, we are not going to be productive. Understanding, embracing, and loving our differences is what is ultimately going to move us forward as a nation.

Kira Pyne is a junior majoring in Interdisciplinary Studies: Communication, Legal Institutions, Economics, and Government (CLEG) and minoring in Psychology. She is a member of the SPA Honors Program, part of the Standards Committee for the Rude Mechanicals, and a New Membership Assistant for Phi Alpha Delta.