Message from the Director

We’re living in a time when any of us can reach an audience of millions through social media, when facts, lies, opinions, and talking points flood our senses around the clock, and political disagreement is personal and intense. We have easier access to information than at any other time in history. It’s also easier to denigrate, threaten, and harass others than it has ever been. In media, in our homes, and in our classrooms, we’re having conversations about civility: what it means, whether it’s an outdated idea, what its limits are, and whether we can or should revive it.

Because of our unique role in expanding and challenging previously-understood ideas and teaching critical thinking, universities zealously protect freedom of speech. American University’s commitment to freedom of expression and dissent is clear and unequivocal:

The University fosters and protects freedom of expression and dissent for all members of the University community. The only limits on free expression are those dictated by law, limits necessary to protect the safety and rights of others, and limits to ensure the normal functioning of the University.

As a lawyer who has the privilege to teach a constitutional law class at the School of Public Affairs, I help students grapple with legal questions about the limitations on protected speech. Our courts have protected speech and expression most of us would never choose to engage in ourselves- from neo-Nazi demonstrations to burning the American flag.  

I’ve found that the question of what we “can” say isn’t the most interesting one in a university community or out in the world. Here at American University, we are all engaged in a mission: we seek and disseminate truth; we attempt to understand and expand humanity’s store of knowledge; we serve the public by contributing and debating ideas, and by preparing ourselves and others to learn, inquire, and contribute.  

But how? It’s up to each of us to decide how to contribute and what to take away from our experience here. It starts with two questions: What do I want for myself? What do I want from myself?

The Project on Civil Discourse was born out of the idea that we should be thinking about how we should use our voices- not only what we can say. There is no political agenda; I would be happy if, after working with this program, people think about how they speak and listen and learn in terms of their responsibilities, values, and goals. The resources we provide - including the Building My Voice tool, teaching resources, peer-led discussion workshops, and distinguished guest speakers- are just a beginning. The exciting part is the dialogue that flows from here.

-Lara Schwartz

Special thanks to AU students Meredith Mason, Isabella Dominique, and Amanda Nannarone for their work to launch this project.

Lara Schwartz Sr Professorial Lecturer SPA - Government