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Constitution Day Event Focused on Campus Freedom of Speech

Constitution Day Event Focused on Campus Freedom of Speech


At college campuses across the country, controversial and provocative speakers have been forced to cancel events or been shouted down by outraged students, raising questions about freedom of speech.

That hasn't happened at SUNY Cortland. And before any potentially divisive speaking engagements lead to shouting, students want to try a different approach to democracy’s inevitable collisions of values and ideas: talking about it.

Tapping into the national discussion sparked by campus conflicts over speakers, SUNY Cortland will mark this year’s Constitution Day with a presentation and a deliberative group dialogue on freedom of speech.

“The thoughtful consideration of new ideas and different opinions is critical to the task of higher education and the role of individuals in a democracy,” President Erik J. Bitterbaum said. “Respect, compassion and critical thinking are all traits we encourage our students to develop and use throughout their lives.”

SUNY Cortland’s annual Constitution Day event will take place from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 17, in Corey Union’s Fireplace Lounge. To register, contact John Suarez, director of the Institute for Civic Engagement, by Wednesday, Sept. 12.

Assistant Professor Timothy Delaune of the Political Science Department will open the event with a 20-minute presentation, “Freedom of Speech on the College Campus.”

The presentation will be followed by a 100-minute deliberative dialogue, moderated by Suarez, in which all audience members will be required to participate. Participants will be broken into groups and each also will have a trained student or faculty or staff member to help facilitate the discussion.

The goal is to have the participants discuss challenges surrounding freedom of speech on campus and for them to identify shared values and develop an action plan on how to take a hypothetical discussion into the real world.

“One outcome of this might be, for example, a push by students representing a variety of backgrounds and political views to work together to bring to campus people with disparate points of view,” Suarez said. “How do we avoid those confrontational situations that are all too common on campuses around the country and elsewhere?”

The Institute for Civic Engagement’s Action Team interns organized two deliberative dialogues during the 2017-18 academic year on the topics of voter engagement and mass shootings.

“Reflecting on these two deliberative dialogues, they distilled the idea that we really need to learn how to address contentious issues no matter what the issue may be,” Suarez said.

Another deliberative dialogue, on the topic of environmental sustainability, is scheduled for Oct. 25 from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. in the Hall of Fame Room. Suarez encourages students from all disciplines to register for deliberative dialogues so that they can learn techniques to help society deal with important issues.

Constitution Day recognizes the signing of the U.S. Constitution on Sept. 17, 1787 and serves as a reminder of the importance of public participation at all levels of government. SUNY colleges hosting similar events in mid-September will share ideas across social media using the hashtag “#SUNYConstitutionDay.”