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Vol. 38, No. 3

Three state bars participate in ABA national dialogue on civility

by Joseph Paul Justice Burke III

Between September 2012 and June 2013, the ABA, through its Division for Public Education, partnered with organizations in 10 states to conduct 13 public programs on civility and free expression.

The National Endowment for the Humanities provided funding for what was called Civility and Free Expression in a Constitutional Democracy—A National Dialogue. Among the organizations receiving grants to conduct dialogue projects were three state bar associations: Vermont, Missouri, and Tennessee. Here’s a look at the programs they created as a result.


Vermont Bar Association: Civility in political discourse

The Vermont Bar Association addressed the topic of civility and free expression in political discourse. The public forum, held on a Saturday at the Capitol Plaza in Montpelier, was moderated by Chris Graff, a print and public television journalist and formerly the long-time head of the Associated Press in Vermont.

Jim Leach, former chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, was the keynote speaker. Participating or attending were the news media, the former chief justice of the Vermont Supreme Court, various state secretaries, educators at the high school and college levels, and civic and public interest groups.

The program addressed the question of how Vermont compared with the rest of the nation in terms of civility among legislators and political leaders. The participants agreed that political discourse is most likely more civil than in the rest of the country because leaders in Vermont see themselves as being part of a small community, and they have many opportunities to interact in person.

The Missouri Bar: Lessons from the Civil War

The Missouri Bar partnered with the Missouri Bar Foundation and the Missouri Humanities Council to host an evening event for the public, highlighting lessons from Missouri’s Civil War-era history. The event featured Jeremy Neely, a professor at Missouri State University and author of The Border Between Them: Violence and Reconciliation on the Kansas-Missouri Line.

This was followed by a separate two-day teacher institute, aimed at integrating social studies, civility, and technology in middle school and high school. The three presenters at the institute were: Mary Harriet Talbut, who, as instructional designer at Southeast Missouri State University, trains faculty there on incorporating technology into teaching; Nancy Willard, the director of Embrace Civility in the Digital Age and author of several works on cyber bullying and cyber safety; and Nisan Chavkin, executive director of the Constitutional Rights Foundation Chicago.

Tennessee Bar Association: Balancing civility and free expression

In three different cities, the Tennessee Bar Association held public forums on three different aspects of civility, through its Balancing Civility and Free Expression Initiative. All the forums featured expert panels and real-life scenarios and were moderated by Bill Haltom, a Memphis lawyer who is well known for his column in the Tennessee Bar Journal.

The Memphis program focused specifically on civility in the public square. The Nashville forum included an examination on the role the media plays regarding civility toward the courts—especially in cases when courts render controversial judicial opinions.

Knoxville’s program, on civility among lawmakers and political leaders, featured Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, along with former governors Phil Bredesen and Don Sundquist. The three discussed a model for civility and effective governance that was developed by Howard H. Baker Jr., a former U.S. senator and ambassador to Japan. As Tennessee’s first popularly elected Republican senator, Baker was known as “the Great Conciliator” for his ability to bring together lawmakers from the opposing parties to resolve pressing issues.

To learn more

This civics dialogue program is now complete, but that doesn’t mean the discussion is over.  Christine Lucianek, program manager in the ABA Division for Public Education, says dialogue organizers in several states formed new and lasting relationships as a result of the project, and in some cases are continuing to develop programs on civility.

The ABA Division for Public Education’s civility website offers information about all the speakers at the various dialogues, videos from some of the programs, and downloadable materials for any other organizations that would like to plan a civility-related program. One such resource is "Civility in the 21st Century," a video produced by the Tennessee Bar Association. Also of interest is the civility-themed special issue of the division’s Insights on Law & Society publication.

Joseph Paul Justice Burke III

Joseph Paul Justice Burke III is an attorney and the executive director of the Wilkes-Barre Law & Library Association. He is also director and law librarian-in-chief of the Hon. Max Rosenn Memorial Law Library.