Reflections on "Free Speech, Civil Discourse"
“How’d you hear about Kenyon?”
That’s the question I get most often from friends whom I’ve met here in Ohio. Local residents in church or at the bookstore are often bemused at a kid from Los Angeles who would, rather than fly over, consciously choose to fly into Ohio. People assume that a California kid would rather be at Berkeley, that a political science major would rather be at Georgetown — but I knew early on that Kenyon alone was right for me.
Though I grew up reading “Calvin and Hobbes” by Bill Watterson ’80, and many students are led to the Hill by superstar author John Green ’00, it was not Kenyon’s literati who beckoned me. I came following James Comey.
In spring 2016, the then-current FBI director (and a Kenyon parent) stood on the stage of Rosse Hall, backed by a banner emblazoned with a name: Center for the Study of American Democracy (CSAD). Then, as now, controversy raged over free speech and speakers on college campuses; then, as now, students at colleges and universities across the country occasionally shouted down speakers and rioted rather than hear that with which they disagreed. Suffice to say, Kenyon’s reception of Comey was different: respectful disagreement and quite a bit of pushback, yes, but an opportunity for him to speak and for students to question him, engaging each other in our iteration of the classic agora: the Athenian hub of ideas.
Recently, CSAD invited all to a biennial dialogue — pronouncements and objections, questions and answers, the opportunity to learn from one another — and as always, we rose to the occasion, packing houses at every session all day for two days. The theme, “Free Speech, Civil Discourse,” was not simply topical to the news but profoundly meaningful to our lives, to our continuous obligation to create a better society. Scholars and academics from across the political spectrum came to the Hill to discuss the juxtaposition created by the comma separating “Free Speech, Civil Discourse.” As President Decatur wrote in his own response to the conference, “Are these two concepts in inherent opposition (free speech or civil discourse)? Are they brought together in natural union (free speech and civil discourse)?” The answer, he notes, is no; it is both, the “and/or,” the tension between the desire for both and the passions that can undermine their coexistence.
As a student worker at the conference, I was able to interact with some of our speakers offstage: I chatted with and lent my Wi-Fi password to Nadine Strossen, the longtime president of the American Civil Liberties Union; discussed the interaction of the First and Second Amendments with Jeffrey Rosen, President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Constitution Center; gave directions to Professor Allison Stanger of Middlebury College; and asked former Governor of Vermont Howard Dean his opinion on the meaning of American citizenship. (In the photo above, I was also caught listening somewhat skeptically as a panelist answered questions from the audience.)
President Decatur notes that “if we think of society as a marketplace of ideas, college campuses are the sites of market disruption.” That was certainly true over the course of the CSAD conference, as students sat side-by-side with our professors and other influential academics and all had our opinions challenged and preconceptions complicated. Together with our faculty’s resolution reaffirming the importance we place on the freedom of expression, the CSAD conference is yet another example of Kenyon’s commitment to a classic liberal education.
During the CSAD conference I was reminded of a certain passage in John F. Kennedy’s “Profiles In Courage.” Kennedy relates a scene from 1946, when, despite overwhelming popular support for the Nuremberg Trials, Ohio Senator Robert Taft raised questions he believed imperative about the prosecution of Nazi war criminals, and did so in the interest of discourse’s role in our path to justice. Fittingly, he did so in a speech at Kenyon College.
That, in my view, is the defining characteristic of Kenyon; and at last week’s conference on “Free Speech, Civil Discourse,” CSAD gave it a chance to shine. Bringing academics and politicians alike to the Hill to spar and learn in the public square of ideas, CSAD embodies its conference’s theme, the College’s standout trait, our legacy of almost 200 years: we embark on Quests for Justice, we hold and invite diverse opinions, and from Middle Path we set out into the world better-prepared to do what we can for our country as thinkers and as citizens.