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. 

Weekly News Digest, No. 21

Crowd standing in a public square

Welcome to the twenty-first 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. For a list of discussions and to register, click here.

Upcoming Events

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.

The Global Education Forum, “Hate Comes to Campus,” will be held on Thursday, March 28th. The Forum will feature a 2:30pm panel discussing free speech and the campus community and a 5:00pm panel discussing the radical right and global education. The Project on Civil Discourse is co-sponsoring the Forum and PCD Director Lara Schwartz will be a member of the first panel. For more information or to register, click here.

Free Speech on Campus

At CPAC on Saturday, President Donald Trump announced: “I will be very soon signing an executive order requiring colleges and universities to support free speech if they want federal research grants.” Trump didn’t give further details about an order that will “appeal to conservative lawmakers who have increasingly sought intervene in campus matters,” The Chronicle of Higher Education reports. This announcement echoes a February 2017 tweet in which Trump threatened U.C. Berkeley’s federal funds after students protested the visit of right-wing provocateur, Milo Yiannopoulos.

Free Speech and SCOTUS

Schenck v. United States celebrated its 100th birthday on Sunday, marking a century since the Supreme Court “weighed in for one of the first times on the meaning of the First Amendment.” Christopher Daly writes about how the Supreme Court’s ruling has shaped free speech in the decades since, especially in the context of a free press. Daly concludes: “Judging from the wartime reporting in recent decades about the Pentagon Papers case, the My Lai Massacre, and the Abu Ghraib torture scandal, the record suggests that Americans need a free and robust news media every bit as much in wartime as in peacetime.”

Information Literacy

Recent research suggests that individuals who “ascribe profundity to randomly generated sentences” tend to believe that fake news is accurate and struggle to differentiate fake and real news. Similarly, individuals who claim they are smarter than they are “also perceive fake news as more accurate.” These results “reinforce the important role that analytic thinking plays in the recognition of misinformation.”

Thanks for reading!

Weekly News Digest, No. 19

Crowd standing in a public square

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

Director Lara Schwartz and Daniel Ritter co-authored an article on civil discourse that appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of Academe. They discussed the importance of cultivating civil discourse in the classroom and outlined best practices for faculty interested in promoting civil discourse.

 Upcoming Events

On Wednesday, February 27th, PEN America and the Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement are holding a student forum on hate speech, academic freedom, and the First Amendment. It will run from 7:00-8:30pm at the Center’s downtown offices. For more information and to RSVP, click here.

On Wednesday, March 6th, Tyler Lewis will speak at American University about the importance of conviction and authenticity in value-driven political communication. Lewis is the Director of Coalition Communications and Research at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Lewis’ talk will be held at 11:30am in MGC 200 and is presented by the Project on Civil Discourse. To RSVP through Facebook, 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.

Campus Speech

PEN America’s Jonathan Friedman writes about the impact of good faith in campus speech controversies in the Winter 2019 issue of Academe.Friedman argues that approaching controversial speakers, trigger warnings, and other hot-button issues with good faith, patience, and listening would deescalate tense situations and reaffirm free speech rights in higher education. However, Friedman notes that some speakers and situations can’t be approached with good faith, such as speakers who targeted historically marginalized groups.

Civil Discourse and Partisanship

The Idaho Statesman recently profiled Keith Allred, executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse. Allred believes that elected officials are far more partisan than the average American, leading to a self-reinforcing media cycle that drives our nation apart. Allred’s solution is simple: “Start with practical, consensus solutions that share broad support. Inform and mobilize and unite people who prize progress over partisan food fights. Show the extremists that they will lose out if they don’t put broadly supported solutions ahead of partisan positioning.”

Symbols and Beliefs

Matthew A. Sears revisits the historical example of the Peloponnesian War to explain how political symbols signal political beliefs and why their usage can shape history. In the case of the Athenians in 5thcentury B.C., acts of vandalism were painted as the “beginning of a plot to overthrow the Athenian democracy.” In the wake of the Covington Catholic controversy, Sears connects this to the wearing of MAGA hats, writing: “But by proudly displaying their MAGA hats, the boys of Covington Catholic presented themselves as embracing a set of exclusionary ideas. It is absolutely fair and rational to take their own self-presentation seriously.”

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!