In a 2012 national poll conducted by Weber Shandwick reports that 63 percent of Americans believe there is a “major civility problem” in the United States; 81 percent of Americans reportedly believe that “incivility in our government is hurting America.” However, while debate and free expression may sometimes be characterized as “uncivil,” they are an important part of a robust, democratic landscape. This issue of Insights explores the relationship between civility and free expression, and the role of each within our constitutional democracy.
Over the past two years, the American Bar Association’s Division for Public Education, with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), has engaged in a public discussion series: Civility and Free Expression in a Constitutional Democracy in nine states around the country. Our goal has been to examine how the rule of law contributes to, and limits, efforts to promote civility in political and public discourse and online. Visit our website to learn more about this project at www.ambar.org/civility.
This issue opens with an introduction from NEH Chairman James Leach reflecting on why civility is essential to our democracy. John Kasson (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) offers an examination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophy of the “beloved community” and its relevance to us fifty years after the March on Washington and his seminal “I Have a Dream” speech. Laura Beth Nielsen (Northwestern University School of Law) explores racist and sexist speech, posing provocative questions concerning the law’s response to types of offensive speech. Christopher Tomlins (University of California, Irvine School of Law) reminds us of the importance of listening to those who have been “voiceless” in our history, notably enslaved persons, to deepen our understanding and appreciation for freedom of expression. Yohuru Williams (Fairfield University) challenges the notion of our current “civility crisis,” comparing historical examples of political discourse with contemporary incidents. Finally, Jeffrey Rosen (The George Washington University School of Law) highlights everyday issues related to civility and free expression online, which affect all of us in this digital era. Each feature article includes Learning Gateways, offering useful, instructional connections for your classroom.
Please know that we continue to benefit from your feedback and ideas for the magazine, so keep them coming to our editor or me. Let us know about topics that you would like to see us tackle in future issues, and innovative classroom strategies that you have initiated to bring content alive for your students.