Weekly News Digest, No. 16

Crowd standing in a public square

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

Upcoming Events

On Thursday, February 7th, Dr. Alice Dreger will speak at American University about cultivating the virtue of disloyalty. Dr. Dreger, a historian and researcher, will draw from real-life histories to explore ethically productive disloyalty. For more details or to RSVP, click here.

On Thursday, March 21st, the University of California’s National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement will host their #SpeechMatters conference at their Washington Center. With a focus on the future of free expression on college campuses, the conference will feature panels on civil discourse and online speech, along with a keynote lecture and other functions. For a detailed schedule and list of speakers or to register, click here.

Discourse on Campus

A Duke University professor apologized over the weekend after asking students through email to only speak English in department buildings and settings. In the email, the professor acknowledged the challenge of learning a non-native language but warned students that it could reflect poorly on them, affecting future opportunities in the department. This raises important questions about discourse and communication in various settings, including who and when can make such requests and where they should draw that line.

Free Speech on Campus

Earlier this month, Keith Whittington – author of Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech – spoke with the American Council of Trustees and Alumni about why college trustees should defend free speech. He focused on recent remarks by Temple professor Marc Lamont Hill and the ensuing reaction by university trustees and the public. Whittington says: “If universities are going to be vibrant, intellectual places, if people are going to feel comfortable voicing controversial ideas, then we need to be very tolerant. We should also be concerned about whether or not we can construct an effective, fine line between people’s scholarship and teaching, on the one hand, and people’s public remarks, on the other hand.

Jeffrey Adam Sachs argues that the campus free speech crisis ended last year, using data from the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) on speaker disinvitations, faculty terminations, and university speech policies. Sachs examines several explanations for this trend, including self-censorship, policy changes, tactics, and a change in campus culture.

Civil Discourse

Next Avenue, a public journalism service for older audiences, offers several practices for moving toward civil discourse in an age of polarization. These include speaking from humility, avoiding binary thinking, and using language that engages and allows for fruitful conversation.

Thanks for reading!

Weekly News Digest, No. 15

Crowd standing in a public square

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

Upcoming Event

On Thursday, February 7th, Dr. Alice Dreger will speak at American University about cultivating the virtue of disloyalty. Dr. Dreger, a historian and researcher, will draw from real-life histories to explore ethically productive disloyalty. For more details or to RSVP, click here.


Over the past several years, the National Institute for Civil Discourse has built a multi-faceted approach to achieve its goal of restoring civility in public life. Katie Zezima writes about the Institute’s programming, which includes producing policy papers for citizens on hot-button issues, hosting “civility conversations,” and training people in civil discourse and positive campaigning.

Intellectual Humility

In a recent article for Vox, Brian Resnick writes about intellectual humility and the importance of knowing you might be wrong. Resnick’s argument is grounded in the scientific community and its increased emphasis on publishing retractions and corrections, but it applies to civil discourse too. There are several challenges to fostering intellectual humility, or the “recognition that the things you believe in might in fact be wrong.” These include realizing and acknowledging our cognitive blind spots and creating a culture that accepts the phrase “I was wrong,” rather than mocking or punishing those who say it.

Discourse and Propaganda

Jennifer Mercieca writes that we must communicate as citizens rather than propagandists in order to restore discourse in the public sphere. She notes an increasing distrust in institutions and 2016 Russian propaganda efforts as two parts of this problem. Mercieca writes that we need to “be educated to think, judge, and be critical about the news we post and consume.”

New Book on Free Speech

Two leading First Amendment scholars explore the evolution and future of First Amendment doctrine in America in The Free Speech Century, a collection of 16 essays by legal scholars. It covers a range of salient issues, from hate speech and free expression on college campuses to the boundaries of speech on social media platforms. Read more about the book here.

Thanks for reading!

Weekly News Digest, No. 14

Crowd standing in a public square

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

Speech on Campus

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, released their Spotlight on Speech Codes 2019 report, which examines the state of free speech on college campuses across the country. Using an internal rating system, FIRE reported a decrease in schools with a red-light rating and an increase in schools with a green-light rating as more schools adopt policies modeled around the University of Chicago’s report on freedom of expression.

Recently, Dr. Sigal Ben-Porath, professor at the University of Pennsylvania, argued in Inside Higher Ed against endorsing the Chicago principles. Although the principles represent an important, necessary commitment to free speech and inquiry, the “legalistic and formal framework” falls short when it encounters unique situations and diverse concerns. Dr. Ben-Porath writes that an endorsement “comes at the expense of the reasonable demands from people on campuses who argue that free speech that protects the expression of biased views creates an unequal burden that they are made to carry — especially as free speech today is too often used as a political tool by the right.”

Creative Activism and Protest

In November, Ian Madrigal spoke at American University about activism, discourse, and identity. Madrigal – an attorney and consumer advocate better known for their activism as The Monopoly Man – appeared in the news recently after an appearance at the House Judiciary Committee hearing for Google CEO Sundar Pichai. The Washingon Post Magazine profiled Madrigal, writing that the costume “is really an elaborate act of protest: a combination of entertainment and trolling that Madrigal calls ‘cause-play.’”

Discourse in our Communities

The Michigan Public Policy Survey examined the state of civil discourse on local policy issues in Fall 2018, looking at relationships among local officials, among residents, and between the two. MPPS found that most leaders believe discourse is constructive at the local level, with little change compared to a 2012 survey. However, discourse between residents is viewed as considerably less constructive, especially in Michigan’s most diverse communities.

Better Angels is trying to reverse that trend by facilitating discussions across the political divide. Rather than seeking a centrist compromise, David Graham writes that Better Angels “presupposes polarity” and focuses on fostering conversations between those on opposite sides. Graham examines the organization’s strengths and weaknesses, ultimately asking: “Even if Better Angels can succeed in getting a large swath of the population to speak civilly, who knows if they’ll be able to convert that into productive conversation on real policies?”

Thanks for reading!

Weekly News Digest, No. 13

Crowd standing in a public square

Welcome to the thirteenth installment of the Project on Civil Discourse’s Weekly News Digest, hosted on our Real Talk blog, which is back for the spring semester after a short holiday break. This semester the blog will continue to feature weekly posts that share students’ experiences with civil discourse, reflect on the Project’s events, and recap discourse-related news.

Before the holidays, Steph Black defined trauma-informed discourse, writing that it is about “believing that we, people of all backgrounds and experiences, are able to engage deeply with challenging subject matter on an even playing field.”

Belief vs. Science

Ibram X. Kendi argues in The Atlantic that those who deny climate change and racism attack observable reality when they discredit and disbelieve scientific findings. Kendi writes that denialists “explain their disbelief using examples in their direct line of sight [and] do not trust the far-flung hindsight, foresight, and bird’s-eye view of the scientist.”

Using Profanity

Last week, newly sworn-in Congresswoman Rashida Talib (D-MI) made headlines after calling for President Trump’s impeachment and referring to him as a “motherfucker.” Talib’s comments sparked debate over the use of profanity by elected officials, with many – including President Trump and congressional Republicans – claiming her comments were disrespectful and inappropriate. In response to their reaction, columnist Michelle Goldberg argued that Talib said nothing wrong, citing President Trump’s past use of profanity and the double-standard that women face.

Earlier in 2018, Mona Eltahawy outlined her case for why profanity should be seen and used as a tool to call out and dismantle unfair and unequal power structures. She notes that she swears to make people uncomfortable, writing that “in the era of Trump – a man who has torpedoed the notion of civility – women are still expected to be polite.”

Civil Discourse Online

Kiley Bense writes for The Atlantic about the subreddit Change My View, a forum on Reddit that promotes discussion about issues that people commonly disagree on. Unlike other social platforms that struggle to moderate speech, such as Facebook and Twitter, Change My View successfully facilitates civil discourse by establishing strict, transparent, and constituent rules about how users may debate. However, the subreddit still offers a platform to problematic ideologies and its users are predisposed to open-mindedness.

College Speech

In December, a student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst was asked to remove a sign saying “Fuck Nazis you are not welcome here” because its message was not inclusive nor respectful. Nicole Parsons hung the sign in her window after a swastika was drawn in her residence hall. While the sign didn’t violate school policy, Parsons received an email from a university employee asking her to remove it. UMass Amherst later responded, saying they “reject Nazis” but are “sensitive to the use of profanity.”

Thanks for reading!