Civility and Free Expression in Political Discourse

Civility and Free Expression in Political Discourse



Political discourse on the campaign trail, in attack ads on television, in the halls of Congress, in verbal exchanges between political party leaders, and everywhere on cable television and radio seems conflict-oriented, unproductive, and generally discouraging to most Americans today. Many scholars and observers connect this current wave of uncivil political discourse to historically low levels of trust and confidence in the institutions of government (notably Congress, but also other elected leaders) as well as to widespread cynicism about public service and servants. This seems to be especially the case among the more idealistic young.

The tragic shootings in Tucson in January 2011 and the often strident political talk about their causes and implications brought the subject of civility to the forefront of our national conversations. Public leaders and politicians of all stripes promised to do better, to work more cooperatively, and to disagree where necessary in a more civil tone. How long this truce of words and tone lasted was difficult to predict, but we do know from our nation’s history that heated partisan political talk flows and ebbs and that no generation has had a monopoly on civility in political discourse. The Supreme Court has rarely been directly involved in debates about political talk, leaving the elected branches of government to monitor themselves. However, in a landmark campaign finance case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010), the Court held that government bans or limits on corporate political spending for individual candidates violated a basic free speech principle, one that extended not only to individuals but to corporations.

Questions for Discussion

As we move forward, many questions about the future of our political discourse remain:

  • Will the removal of campaign spending limits enrich or inhibit political speech?
  • In what other ways has or could the U.S. Supreme Court have an impact upon our national political discourse?
  • Is contentious or uncivil political talk between the two major political parties a necessary precondition for meaningful elections that clarify policy differences for voters?
  • Is there any substantial relationship between civil political discourse and effective government policies?
  • Is civility a desirable political goal, mere window dressing for democracy, or an actual hindrance to widespread political participation


Civility and Free Expression in a Constitutional Democracy is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities under the Bridging Cultures initiative. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Bar Association, or any of its program partners.