November 9, 2006

Streets as a Public Forum?

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One might not expect a distinguished professor of law to come to Cornell to talk about the creation of sidewalks and parks all over the nation, but that’s just what Prof. Cass Sunstein, law, University of Chicago, did when he was invited to speak last night as the Inaugural Milton Konvitz Memorial Lecturer. President David Skorton introduced Sunstein to an audience of approximately 100 students and faculty in Ives Hall’s PepsiCo Auditorium.

“Streets and parks must be open for public activity,” Sunstein posited. “[They must be] a place where people who want to talk can talk.”

But the image of grassy parks and concrete sidewalks is a mere metaphor to what Sunstein believes needs to happen in order to encourage progress in American democracy.

Sunstein’s lecture, titled “The Public Forum: The Affirmative Side of Free Speech,” centered on the phenomenon of ideological polarization within discussions among like-minded individuals, and the importance of creating media where opposing views can be aired and dialogue can take place.

He began by describing two empirical studies that seemingly confirmed the trend of ideological polarization. The first created two groups of discussants: liberal-minded people were found in Boulder, Colo., and conservative-minded people were found in Colorado Springs, Colo.

They were asked their beliefs on three topics: the existence of same-sex unions, the need for an international treaty dealing with global warming and the importance of affirmative action programs.

After each group discussed these issues, it was found that the views of both sides had moved toward the extremes, “squelching … the diversity of opinions,” according to Sunstein.

The liberals, he described, became particularly enthusiastic about supporting same-sex unions, the international treaty for global warming and affirmative action, while the conservatives, he claimed, moved more toward the right than they were before.

Another study involved asking deliberative jurors what dollar amount should be attached to certain crimes, and once again, it was found that jurors tended to shift toward greater severity for what they considered to be severe crimes, while others would move toward being more lenient for less severe crimes.

This “echo chamber” or “group polarization” phenomenon, as Sunstein termed it, could be resolved by creating more public forums for open dialogue, which is where the idea of creating sidewalks and parks came in.

“Sidewalk contacts are … where the public wealth may grow,” he said, referring to how, in a public space like a sidewalk, people can engage in dialogue with anyone of any ideology.

Later in the lecture, Sunstein mentioned another study that set up a system allowing “people to speak across their differences.” He described an example where a single mother of two children living on welfare in New York was asked to talk in a group that included a man from Oklahoma; Sunstein said that the man grew visibly upset whenever the mother used the word “family.”

At one point the man confronted the mother by saying that he did not believe the word “family” applied to her situation because “a family,” according to him, includes a father, which hers did not. After several days of discussions, however, the man returned to the mother and told her his beliefs had changed to be more open-minded.

Sunstein reemphasized that public forums were needed so that one side “could hear the other,” and suggested several means of doing this. One example he said was to encourage the creation of hyperlinks to websites of opposing views — such as a link in an article of The New Republic that leads to a more right-leaning site.

At the end of the lecture, Sunstein answered questions concerning academic diversity, including the hiring of more conservative professors as well as a question from Skorton about the issue of including intelligent design in a science course. Sunstein drew a parallel by saying that teaching intelligent design in a science course would be like a law professor teaching that the Bill of Rights is not applicable to the states.

“Everything was presented in the best traditions of legal thinking,” Skorton told The Sun after Sunstein finished. “The underlying logic to his arguments was very compelling.”

“[The lecture] was certainly in Milton’s style, debating important issues in philosophy, law, religion and politics, which he covered all of,” said Harry Katz, dean of the School of Industrial and Labor Relations and the host of the Milton Konvitz lectureship. “It was very fitting.”