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Civility in the Public Square

Thursday, 6 April 2017

by Erin McAllister, Paralegal

The heart of American democracy is the “public square”. It is both a symbol of our commitment to First Amendment freedoms of speech, assembly, press, and religion and a collection of real places where debates, political expression and protests take place. In settings as diverse as town halls, barber shops, street corners, colleges, and funeral services for soldiers, Americans come together to listen, discuss, debate and protest.

The public square becomes loud and unruly. Groups with opposing views try to shout down one another. Scuffles, violence and arrests sometimes occur. Special interests choose locales to gather and march that are designed to offend the targets of their protest. The signs, language and symbols of the public square are often offensive, nasty, and uncivil. Historians are quick to point out that the lack of civility in the public square is not new. What is changing is that any form of civility is being brushed aside by the desire of groups to force their views in the public square at the detriment of others. The public square must and should be open to all individuals or groups and all views. When ideas or views are diminished by political correctness and shaming, as is popular on social media, democracy is diminished and the public square is not inclusive.

The U.S. Supreme Court has generally protected political speech and assembly in many different forms and settings, including the right of neo-nazis to march down the streets of Skokie, Illinois, a community heavily populated with Holocaust survivors. More recently, the Court upheld the free expression of rights of a church to picket at a funeral even though the expression was considered offensive and outrageous.

The University of Colorado's Conflict Research Consortium, has been developing an approach which is called "constructive confrontation." This approach combines an understanding of conflict processes, dispute resolution, and advocacy strategies to help disputants better advance their interests. Their approach tries to separate people from the problem, and focus on using available technical facts. They want to limit interpersonal misunderstandings, escalation and use fair processes. They value the legitimate uses of legal, political and other types of power in the hopes of separating win/win from win/lose issues.

Civility is about more than just politeness, although politeness seems to be a necessary first step. It is about disagreeing without disrespect, and seeking common ground as a starting point for dialogue about differences. Civility is the hard work of staying present even with those with whom we have deep-rooted and fierce disagreements. It is a necessary prerequisite for civic action. Civility should be used to make sure that everyone’s voice is heard, and nobody is ignored.

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Driving Directions from I-15:
• Take the Pleasant Grove exit 275 from I-15
• Turn North onto Pleasant Grove Blvd
• Turn left onto W. Grove Pkwy
• Quickly turn left into the Synergy/Spaulding Law parking lot.