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Free speech and civil debate are hallmarks of a stable democracy

Professor Powers previews topics of CSAD conference.

This September, the Center for the Study of American Democracy (CSAD) at Kenyon convenes its biennial conference with the theme Free Speech, Civil Discourse. The topic is timely, timeless—and complicated.

Nearly everyone supports speech that stimulates thought or challenges tyranny. More controversial is speech that challenges norms, drowns out the voices of poorer citizens, tramples on privacy or promotes racism. From the Scopes trial about teaching evolution in schools, to more recent Supreme Court cases about campaign spending limits and picketers at funerals, to the white supremacists on the streets of Charlottesville this year, free speech becomes controversial when X’s unfettered speech creates unwanted conditions for Y.

The U.S. Supreme Court interprets the First Amendment expansively and protects X’s freedoms vigorously. In some democracies, free expression is less sacrosanct. Germany bans “hate speech” so as to stop Hitleresque demagoguery. The European Commission regulates speech deemed injurious to democracy or “social harmony.”

Notably, the American principle of free speech includes the right to be wrong, even about the facts. With some exceptions concerning advertisements, fraud, libel or slander, American law allows someone to spread falsehoods even if doing so harms the public. Recently, in Minnesota, anti-vaccine activists targeted their scientifically debunked crusade on the Somali community, and 64 children got the measles, the largest outbreak in two decades.

Democracies need open debate but seem to do best when the debate is civil and fair-minded. Like an excellent term paper, effective public policy develops from respectful consideration of competing arguments and data. Yet instead of earnest dialogue, American politics today is beset with slogans and polarization. Social media encourage hasty responses and demeaning tweets. How can we recover habits of civil discourse?

Our era has media space for alternative viewpoints but little conversation among them. Politicians see “pivoting to message” as an art form, but answering a criticism as a tactical error. This year’s State of the First Amendment survey found half of Americans said they seek their news from sources compatible with their own views. 

Last year, some students told me they decided not to attend a lecture, because they presumed they would not agree with the speaker. Yet learning starts with exposure to thoughts one has not held before. It requires willingness, and freedom, to consider alternative arguments. The Kenyon faculty’s new statement on free expression affirms that “students and faculty should have the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn.”

Along with free and open inquiry, the liberal arts tradition prizes fairness, rigor, ethical behavior, equality and justice. Some argue that speech should be tempered by respect for these values. So thoughtful people across academe, perhaps sharing the same values but differing on priorities, engage in heated disagreements about graduation speakers, safe spaces, cultural appropriations and instructors’ comments in class.

Even without formal impediments to speech, informal practices can deter expression of the broadest possible range of views. Microaggressions discourage some students from fully expressing themselves, while a culture of political correctness or fear of unintentionally causing offense may deter free expression by others.

In sum, free speech and civil discourse are clearer principles in the abstract than in practice. That’s why this September, CSAD invites students to compete in an essay contest on the dilemmas of free and civil expression and invites the entire community to a conference with an ideologically diverse and nationally renowned lineup of speakers.

The CSAD conference occurs only twice in your four years at Kenyon. Mark your calendars for Sept. 27 to 28 and plan to attend as many events as you can.

Nancy Powers teaches political science and is Assistant Director of CSAD.

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