A Reflection on “A Conversation with Garrett Epps”

Garrett Epps speaking in front of students at Kay
By Liam Carbutt, AU CAS

On Wednesday, October 17th, Professor Garrett Epps led a conversation about the complexities and burdens of free speech in the diverse and largely unequal society that we live in. Epps is a Professor of Law at the University of Baltimore and a contributing editor for the Atlantic. He has written and taught about constitutional law and the structure of the Supreme Court for many years. Epps spoke at the Kay Spiritual Center, which was packed with students and faculty.

From the start, Professor Epps made it clear that he wanted the event to be a dialogue, not a lecture. Although he sat on stage throughout the event, he made a point to make time for questions from the audience at all times, even leaving the stage to approach students in the back whom he could not hear. Professor Epps facilitated the conversation in a way that allowed for a diversity of voices to rise up and challenge his ideas, which was the central focus of the conversation itself. Professor Epps made it clear that any discussion about free speech must take place on equal footing and he put this into practice in the way he was intentional about sharing the mic and listening to others throughout the event.

One of the central points that Professor Epps explored throughout the dialogue was the power that speech has to affect relationships within society. According to Epps, speech can be used for anything from inciting violence at rallies to systematically dehumanizing or marginalizing groups of people through mass media and propaganda. Alternatively, speech can also be used to create equity and build a more just society. Professor Epps emphasized that speech is a powerful instrument to change the attitudes and outlooks of listeners.

Additionally, Professor Epps asserted that both the context of the speech and the social position of the speaker are highly relevant to the power that speech ultimately holds. It is undeniable that some speakers are able to appeal to a larger audience with greater influence based on arbitrary characteristics like race, wealth, or high economic status.

Professor Epps cited several contemporary examples of the impact of social position and context on the power that speech holds, the most notable being Brett Kavanaugh’s recent confirmation to the Supreme Court despite sexual assault allegations and testimony by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. In this case, he pointed out that Kavanaugh made an ethical appeal to his audience in the face of an incriminating testimony from a reliable source and he was able to use his speech to discredit Dr. Ford using nothing other than his social position.

Instances like Kavanaugh’s confirmation are unfortunately highly prevalent in our society and it is for this reason that analyses of speech must integrate context and the position of the speakers involved if they are to be effective, according to Professor Epps. Too often, the highly abstract nature of the law surrounding free speech allows discussions about the legality of speech to ignore context and social position. These discussions are removed from reality and they are often unethically manipulated by people in positions of power.

Without question, there are massive power imbalances in this country along lines of race, gender, sex, economic position, and ability, among many other factors. Power dynamics between these groups matter and they have a significant impact on the freedom of speech for citizens in this country. Professor Epps made it clear that people in positions of power have greater freedom in their speech than marginalized people, which must be considered when discussing the concept of freedom of speech in this country.

Professor Epps critiqued what he calls the “Triumphant” view of free speech, which claims that since speech is so free in the American political climate, it is constantly progressing and eliminating hateful and degrading speech. As a critique of this view, he presented his own “Tragic” view of free speech. The Tragic view suggests that we protect free speech in this country because the alternative, which is to give the racist institutions that this country is built on the power to limit speech, is far worse.

Professor Epps claimed that we let people use speech to do “civilized” battle with one another. We do so in the hope that this will allow us to resolve our differences before we take up arms against one another. We protect free speech because it does do harm, but a type of harm that we generally prefer to physical harm. In the Tragic view, we must protect free speech for all, even if it is hateful, because the costs of allowing institutional restrictions disproportionally harms marginalized people and arbitrarily benefits privileged people.

Thus, Professor Epps argued that all conversations about freedom of speech must also be conversations about equity. We cannot make progress and create a society where speech is truly free for all unless we talk about how to raise some voices up and curtail some of the power that people in positions of power hold over others. Ultimately, large power disparities do not lend to democratic discourse in a free society. If speech is to be free for all, equity must be established in this country. It is pointless to discuss free speech without integrating equity into the conversation.

Professor Epps seems very aware of the relevance of equity in dialogues about free speech and it is evident that he is conscious of his own power and privilege based on the way he stepped back and shared the floor during the discussion that he led. He provided tremendous insight about the relationship between conversations of freedom of speech and institutional inequality that I hope can shape the discourse about free speech at AU going forward.

Liam Carbutt is a first-year graduate student at American University studying philosophy and social policy in the Department of Philosophy & Religion’s BA/MA program. Liam works for the department as a coordinator for the Ethics Bowl, a competition hosted by American University for local high schools.

The Best of Enemies: Having the Tough Conversations

Michaela Becconsall and Robert Wines headshot together
By Michaela Becconsall, AU SIS ’20, and Robert Wines, AU SPA ’20

Winter break was quickly approaching as we sat in the basement of the library cramming for our last few exams. The hours rushed by, and as anyone would, we decided to take a study break. However, this was not your usual study break; there was no discussion of the upcoming bowl game or an hour-long break to check out a new show on Netflix. No, this was a classic American University study break – one where our title as “the most politically active school in the United States” materialized. We closed our laptops and pushed aside our notes to discuss the Iraq War. What started as a twenty-minute hiatus turned into a three-hour discussion. We tackled the issues from entirely opposing points of view, but some way we managed to remain the best of friends after.

Conversations such as ours feel to many as if they are becoming increasingly less common. Unfortunately, the attraction to retreat to one’s own side to be intellectually comfortable in a bubble of like-minded peers has grown stronger. Polling has shown we view each other more as the enemy than any other time in the last 20 years, and the appeal of demonizing those who maintain different core beliefs has grown even stronger.

Almost every time we hang out, we find ourselves discussing topics which have been deemed forbidden, like religion and politics. We do not spare ourselves the anguish by retreating to the less divisive issues. Instead, we throw ourselves down the intellectual rabbit hole, discussing topics that ought to shake the very foundation of our friendship – not topics which have to do with innocuous policy issues where common ground is easy to find, but the ones that have to do with our unwavering core beliefs. We are sure you can think of some.

Yet, at the end of each conversation, we leave better friends and even better people. We’d be lying though if we said there weren’t times that we grew frustrated with one another. But this frustration never amounts to a dismissal of the other person’s views; instead, it feeds our desire to learn more and get closer to the truth.

Our ability to tackle forbidden topics lies on three pillars:

It starts with a shared respect for one another’s experiences. We share some similarities. We are both from Long Island and we both have politically active and aware fathers whose right-leaning views largely shaped our own, in their image or in the opposite.  The similarities end there though. I, Robert, went to an all-boys, virtually all-conservative Catholic high school. On the other hand, I, Michaela, attended a much more balanced public school in my hometown. We hung around in very different social scenes, with very different people. We did not grow up sharing common interests, other than a love of politics. Our towns, although less than ten miles away from each other, were quite different.

These factors that shaped us have only strengthened our conversations because as we spoke more, it became clearer how we began to develop our fundamental beliefs. Knowing one another’s stories and background have led us to respect each other more as people and to build our difficult conversations on the fundamental building block of our friendship.

The second pillar is a commitment to intellectual honesty. Spending so much time together discussing these matters, we have begun to realize that we aren’t having these debates to change the other’s mind. Rather, we are participating to challenge ourselves, challenge our beliefs, and develop a deeper knowledge of the subject at hand. A quick “gotcha” statistic or question serves for nothing more than a twelve-second feeling of satisfaction. Our intention is not to “win” as there is no “winning” in our conversations. Our intention is to learn and bounce our ideas off one another. In approaching our discussions this way, we have seen our some of our views evolve, and others grow even stronger as they have withstood the opposing argument.

Lastly, we go into each of these conversations, even the heavy ones, with a strong sense of humor. We both recognize that it is important to laugh at ourselves and to incorporate humor into these discussions, as that is what keeps it fun and lighthearted. We will sarcastically exaggerate claims often flung by our respective parties and do the same for the other side. In doing so, we never get so wrapped up in our points that we fail to see the person on the other side of the argument.

Looking at us most would say there is no way those two could be friends. We are registered in different parties, we hold entirely opposing ideological and religious views, we have incredibly different values, and hold different interests. It is these stark differences that actually keep our arguments exciting and our friendship strong.

So, we hope that the AU student body embraces the tactics that we continually embrace. Life is more fun when you are surrounded by people who don’t think like you, don’t talk like you, and don’t act like you. You grow as a person, and you develop friendships that you would have never guessed you would have fallen into. For the Republican, grab coffee with that SIS hippie in class. For the Democrat, go hit up TDR with that warmongering neo-con you met.

However, try not to do it during finals.

Michaela Becconsall is a junior at American University  studying International Relations and Economics with a focus on International Development. A passionate advocate for girls education, she is the VP of Finance for She’s the First. Additionally, she serves on the executive board of Phi Sigma Sigma as Sisterhood Development Chair.

Robert Wines is a junior at American University studying Interdisciplinary Studies: Communication, Legal Institutions, Economics, and Government (CLEG), with an intended minor in Entrepreneurship. He currently serves as the president of the American University College Republicans, is a brother of Sigma Phi Epsilon, and is a winger for the men’s ice hockey team.

A Reflection on “A Conversation with Josh Blackman”

By Robert Wines, AU SPA ’20

Turning on cable news media, it would appear as if college campuses are consistently in uproar. Conversations are turning into bar fights, professors are cracking down on dissenters, and speakers are provoking riots. While this may produce some good content for prime time, it does not reflect a new normal on campuses. In most cases, two students of differing views can sit and converse without any major issues.

However, there are certainly instances of voices on campus being silenced by a tyranny of the majority. Speaking before a mix of undergraduate and law students at the Washington College of Law on Thursday, September 27th, Josh Blackman reflected on his own experience of being shouted down by students at the City University of New York School of Law. Blackman, a professor of law at the South Texas College of Law Houston, used this example to analyze the state of discourse on American college campuses.

View of the Warren Building at the Washington College of Law
Credit: American University

Professor Blackman is a self-described right-of-center libertarian. While his talks rarely generate more than an interesting conversation, his one discussion at CUNY School of Law generated a mass protest from students. Entering the room, he was greeted by chants of “shame on you.” Students then lined the walls displaying messages of disapproval for his very presence on campus.

Professor Blackman’s response to the display of discontent is one that could be of value for those instances of uncivil discourse. While Professor Blackman could have chosen to take a defensive approach, he simply chose to thaw tensions by staying quiet, and as he put it, “let[ting] them get this out of their system.” Just like Rocky against Clubber Lang, he allowed them to throw punches until the point of exhaustion. As students began to show signs of fatigue, he began to address some of their arguments, using both ration and humor.

He responded with clever quips, but also sought common ground in their claims. Realizing that he was not providing them with the “triggering” content they wished to protest, a student grew frustrated and countered “f**k the law.” Yes, a student of the law, dismissing its very essence. At this point Prof. Blackman knew his dissenters had been disarmed. Soon after, protestors left, allowing him to field questions from those interested in what he had to say.

Professor Blackman displayed that one can be civil in the face of incivility. And, it was in being civil that he found his self-proclaimed enemies were unable to effectively take him down. Had he given the protestors what they wanted he would have ceded any leverage that he held. He best summarized this in saying, “If you maintain a civil demeanor, you are in a much better position.”

As for issues of free speech on campus, Professor Blackman addressed these issues in his discussion with Professor Lara Schwartz, as well as his Q&A session. His general message could be summarized in this: universities have an obligation to preserve free speech. In doing so, they would see radical viewpoints challenged and undermined.

I cannot find myself refuting his point.

Naturally, the conversation looked closely at the more controversial speakers.  Universities, public and private, would be doing a disservice to their students if they barred speakers from campus. Professor Blackman explained that doing this would create a “mystique and an allure.” However, when given the proper opportunity to be seen for who they are, “people will see that they are idiots.”

On the same token, universities have an obligation to promote the first amendment rights of their students. He went so far as to say, “Let student groups invite who they want and protest the hell out of it.” He endorsed this method so long as the speaker was given a chance to speak, and his/her safety was guaranteed.

I am a firm believer that politics is not a zero-sum game. Very rarely can it be boiled down to winners and losers. However, I will push back on my predisposition in this one instance. Professor Blackman taught us that incivility loses. The person that lacks civility will beat themselves every single time. The students who chose to shout Professor Blackman down defeated themselves. A speaker who chooses to troll instead of educate will defeat themselves. The uncivil defeat themselves.

Robert Wines is a junior at American University studying Interdisciplinary Studies: Communication, Legal Institutions, Economics, and Government (CLEG), with an intended minor in Entrepreneurship. He currently serves as the president of the American University College Republicans, is a brother of Sigma Phi Epsilon, and is a winger for the men’s ice hockey team.

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.

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.

***

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.

***

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.