Guest Column
Here’s how we can encourage coherent conversation, including on Florida campuses | Column
Students need to see and hear speakers who can vehemently disagree yet rationally discuss a provocative issue and even find points of agreement from which to build future dialogue.
Paul Newman played "Cool Hand Luke," who paid dearly for his "failure to communicate."
Paul Newman played "Cool Hand Luke," who paid dearly for his "failure to communicate." [ Provided ]
Published May 6

“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” Uttered by Strother Martin’s brutal prison captain after viciously whipping Paul Newman’s chained-up, titular character in 1967′s Cool Hand Luke, it is the movie’s most iconic line. The American Film Institute, in fact, ranks it 11th among the 100 greatest movie quotes of all time.

More than a half-century later, it needs editing. It’s now more aptly put in broader terms: “What we’ve got everywhere is failure to communicate.” I’m getting ahead of myself, but public universities might combat the predicament by hosting an ongoing series of level-headed, on-campus debates.

Clay Calvert
Clay Calvert [ Provided ]

Call it what you will — the demise of discourse, the collapse of conversation or the loathing to listen — manifestations of failure to constructively communicate are pervasive. From what the Long Island Herald described as “a shouting match” at an April town board meeting in Oyster Bay, New York, to a similar April shouting debacle across the country at a city council meeting in Antioch, California, the breakdown of civil dialogue is palpable.

Long-simmering polarization between Democrats and Republicans now takes on a more personal, hostile component. The Pew Research Center reported last year that “growing shares in each party now describe those in the other party as more closed-minded, dishonest, immoral and unintelligent than other Americans.”

Compounding the trouble, this negative “othering” perspective of those holding conflicting views is getting worse. The Pew survey noted that “72% of Republicans and 64% of Democrats say people in the opposing party are more dishonest than other Americans. Fewer than half in each party said this six years ago.”

Bluntly parsing Pew’s findings, if one perceives members of the opposition party as ignorant and immoral, then why engage them in discussion? It’s fruitless because their views aren’t worth hearing and their minds cannot be changed. That provocative takeaway doesn’t bode well for a democratic society where competing views — not just those of the political majority — are essential.

The unwillingness to deeply listen to, let alone rationally engage with, individuals holding divergent positions is most obvious on college campuses. A steady drumbeat of incidents in 2023 involving speakers with conservative viewpoints, especially on the cultural and political flashpoint topic of transgender rights, brings the problem into focus. Consider clashes in April at three public universities — institutions where both outside speakers and student protesters possess First Amendment speech rights.

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An incendiary device was set off by protesters outside a University of Pittsburgh venue where conservative commentator Michael Knowles was scheduled to debate Brad Polumbo regarding laws affecting transgender rights. Many Pitt students deemed it an “anti-trans” event, “citing Knowles’ previous comments on what he calls ‘transgenderism.’”

The debate occurred, but it took dozens of police officers at the protest to pull it off, along with the university issuing a public safety emergency. Polumbo later wrote in Newsweek that several audience protesters were removed by security after they “tried to disrupt the event from the very beginning” and “shout us down.” The protesters’ intention, Palumbo asserts, “was very clearly to intimidate, not discuss.”

At the State University of New York at Albany, protesting students reportedly “shut down” a talk by conservative commentator Ian Haworth before it was moved to another room. Haworth, who was invited by the student chapter of the rightwing organization Turning Point USA, later decried “students using mob tactics to shut down speech, drown out opposing viewpoints, and threaten their fellow students into remaining quiet.” Conversely, as described by Inside Higher Ed, the protesters considered their actions “a demonstration of positivity, joy and support of LGBTQ+ students, meant to counteract the hate they said Haworth brought to campus.”

At the University of Iowa, a talk by Matt Walsh didn’t go smoothly. Walsh promotes himself as “one of the Religious Right’s most influential young voices,” but The New Republic named him “2022′s Transphobe of the Year.” As described by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, “protesters converged on the building where Walsh was set to address students” and “shouted at students in line for the event, filled the hallway with marbles for attendees to trip over, blocked one of the only venue exits, and later blocked the road as cars attempted to leave that evening.” Walsh, who was invited by the student chapter of Young Americans for Freedom, ultimately delivered his talk.

The protesters’ antipathy toward these speakers, whose media profiles seemingly elevate with such publicity-generating conflict, is more than understandable. Speech is personal. Anti-trans stances cut deeply into the core identity and lives of transgender people and everyone who supports them.

But a fundamental difference exists between peaceful protests and posing tough questions to speakers during question-and-answer periods, on the one hand, and shout-down disruptions that thwart speakers from delivering views to those wanting to hear them, on the other. The former give-and-take is essential in the marketplace of ideas, but the latter constitutes a heckler’s veto.

As Hank Reichman, former vice president of the American Association of University Professors, recently explained, “permitting speakers to be shouted down ... or failing to provide sufficient security to ensure that a speech will be delivered — all forms of the heckler’s veto — amount to impermissible violations of the principles of free expression and, in public institutions, of the protections guaranteed by the First Amendment.”

What can public universities do? Requiring general-education classes for all students on First Amendment free expression principles would be helpful, yet it’s impractical staffing-wise and adds credits to packed course loads.

A better starting point is for universities — with input from diverse student organizations — to host a series of high-profile, on-campus debates on timely topics featuring speakers with different, yet not extremist, views. Students need to see and hear speakers who can vehemently disagree yet rationally discuss a provocative issue and even find points of agreement from which to build future dialogue. In short, these debates would do more than inform; they would model for students constructive conversation. It’s not a cure-all, but a first step toward ameliorating the corrosive failure to communicate.

Clay Calvert is professor emeritus at the University of Florida. He held a joint appointment as a professor of law at the Fredric G. Levin College of Law and a Brechner Eminent Scholar in Mass Communication in the College of Journalism and Communications. Specializing in First Amendment and media law, Calvert has published more than 150 law journal articles on topics affecting free expression, and he is lead author of “Mass Media Law” (22nd ed. 2023, McGraw Hill).