How Students, Lawmakers are Using Civil Discourse On Campus, In the Legislature
Through the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, people are guaranteed the freedom to, among other liberties, peaceably assemble. Whether they’re called protests, rallies, or marches, there’s a long history in this county of its citizens coming together to stimulate support for or opposition to various causes. They’re held on street corners, in front of government buildings, and on college campuses.
On the first day of classes this fall at Missouri State University, hundreds gathered in solidarity with Charlottesville to speak out against racism after events in the Virginia city turned violent.
“This event was constructed to bring us all together at the beginning of a school year and to encourage spirit and comradery amongst all of us Bears regardless of our identities,” said Britt Spears, president of the MSU Chapter of the NAACP on Aug. 21.
Nearly three weeks later, a crowd of at least 100 rallied for passage of the DREAM Act after the Trump Administration’s announcement to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) program.
“People don’t realize how much it actually affects us,” DACA recipient Cristina Munoz stated on Sept 8. “So the turnout here was just amazing, because they don’t have to be here. They’re choosing to support us and they’re choosing to be the voice that, sometimes, we can’t have or are fearful (to) speak out.”
Protests on college campuses are not new, but appear to be happening more often. An annual survey started in 1967 by the University of California Los Angeles showed that in 2015 students were more likely to demonstrate for a cause than at any time in the study’s history. That academic year, which concluded in May 2016, saw student protesters at more than 50 schools in total making demands for, among other things, greater faculty diversity and administrator removals, according to a Time Magazine review.
The University of Missouri in Columbia had one of the more publicized altercations. There, protests by students were leveled against official inaction in the face of racial bigotry. It forced the system president and campus chancellor to resign. In the months that followed, protests at Missouri State singled out a school official and called for better practice of diversity and inclusion policies.
Finding Balance on Campus
Since the start of the fall 2017 semester at MSU, demonstrations at the Springfield school have focused on national policies. The two that have drawn the largest attendance to date have both been peaceful. And each time, speakers pointed toward civility in achieving their goals. Just last Friday, students with the pro-life group Bears for Life were met by abortion rights supporters in front of the Plaster Student Union. The headline in the online edition of the Standard read “Pro-choice, Pro-life Activists Talk it Out.”
Jimmy Moore, president of the MSU College Democrats, says “It takes a lot generally to get students in this area to stand up and get involved, and at both [the Charlottesville and DACA at MSU] events we saw massive crowds. And it was also a testament to how civil we’re trying to be. We’re trying every avenue we can to make sure our voices are heard democratically and nonviolently."
Chris Beyer is president of MSU’s College Republicans. He recognizes that recent demonstrations tend to express dissatisfaction with GOP policies, but says he’s glad students are getting involved in the democratic process. Beyer also feels the civil discourse displayed at these and other events are helpful for both political and personal growth.
Beyer said, “It allows us to reaffirm our positions and understand ‘This is what I believe’ or it may broaden horizons that say ‘Well maybe I was wrong on an issue. Maybe I need to look at the other side.’”
Beyer adds that protests are very affective in starting a conversation, but says it’s what the students do after that that leads to policy change.
“Because a demonstration at the end of the day is just a demonstration. It can be symbolic. But if there’s certain students that are pushing for policies or making sure that their voices are heard that’s what matters is getting involved beyond the demonstration.”
Moore says it’s tough to stay motivated due to the slow pace of change. But history helps keep his hope and faith.
“I fall back on leaders, in the past in particular. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his quote about the moral arch being long but bending toward justice," said Moore. "What we’re doing may seem insignificant now but it’s starting the movement to get these things done in the future.”
Moore’s role as a public servant, in his view, means speaking out not necessarily to benefit himself but the next generation.
Civil Discourse in Jefferson City
This doesn’t mean civility doesn’t have its challenges, especially the more controversial the topic.
This protest by those in favor of a 15 dollar an hour minimum wage, is among the demonstrations this past session at the state capitol in Jefferson City. Inside the chamber, the protests at the state capitol in Jefferson City this past session was for a $15 an hour minimum wage. And then there’s what’s happening inside the chambers.
At the state capitol in Jefferson City, the civic discourse on display today is lacking. That’s according to Republican Rep. Lynn Morris of Ozark, who first took office in 2012.
Republican Rep. Lynn Morris of Ozark says there seemed to be a better working arrangement between his party and Democrats five years ago when he first took office. But the civic discourse on display today at the state capitol in Jefferson City is lacking.
“In all five years it has I think progressively gotten worse,” says Morris.
Republicans hold a super majority in both Missouri legislative chambers. It hasn’t hindered Democrats’ opportunity to debate bills, according to Morris, but he calls the discourse on the House floor at times disrespectful and “abusive” on both sides.
Democratic Rep. Crystal Quade of Springfield, who just completed her first term in office says, “My opinion is that it is unfortunate in that I expected that and that when I was going into this and I was not surprised by the negative phrases and the way that folks react to each other on the floor.”
The 32-year-old Quade, who had interned at the capitol in college, is the only democratic office holder south of Columbia in the entire House. Yet she’s managed to build a rapport with Morris, 68, on certain pieces of legislation. Morris says it’s “virtually impossible” for the minority party to pass their own bills.
“I’ve been one of the ones that will try and take these really good bills [by Democrats] that are not political - they should not be political, they should help all people – and I take those bills and I help sponsor those bills and carry the bill and let them be a co-sponsor and maybe we can do something good for this state,” he says.
This includes legislation to combat predatory lending, suicide prevention and to provide certain services for senior citizens.
Quade notes that “Building relationships with folks on the other side and finding these issues that we can both agree on and push forward together is the only way right now in the political climate of 45 Democrats [to 114 Republicans] that I’m gonna see any progress.”
Morris says it’s likely some lawmakers don’t want to compromise with colleagues on the other side, yet feels that’s what citizens want. The Ozark representative uses Congress as an example of what not to follow.
He says, “We need to be better than the federal government and we do need to work toward some type of peaceful solutions and compromises all the time where we can benefit the majority of the people – not just the party – but the majority of people that have elected us.”
In July, an NPR/PBS/Marist poll showed more than 70 percent of Americans feel civility in Washington has declined since President Trump was elected.
Negative perception of the state legislature doesn’t help either, Quade and Morris acknowledge. This summer, two legislators were called on to resign after their Facebook comments stirred controversy on separate issues. Democratic Sen. Maria Chapelle-Nadal of University City said in an August post she hoped President Trump would be assassinated. The comment came in reaction to the president’s handling of events in Charlottesville, Virginia. Two weeks later, Osceola Republican Rep. Warren Love called for the hanging of those found guilty of vandalizing a Confederate monument at Springfield National Cemetery. In the end, Chapelle-Nadal got a written reprimand while Love received criticism from his House colleagues but no punishment.
“It’s unfortunate because what two people said it will hold the whole legislative body accountable,” said Morris. He hopes it teaches a lesson that “Words have consequences, and whatever you’re gonna put on Facebook or put it out in writing, you’re responsible for that.”
Quade says, “Obviously this type of behavior is not something that we should tolerate and be okay with, especially from our elected officials. But the bigger take away from me is it’s a distraction from the serious conversations we need to be having in our state right now.”
From a community perspective, Morris said he’s concerned that civic discourse is getting worse. Quade says civic engagement appears to be on the rise, which she views as a positive.
The two lawmakers spoke with KSMU three days after a former white St. Louis police officer was acquitted in the 2011 shooting death of a black man suspected of dealing drugs. Quade, who was in St. Louis after the verdict and witnessed the protests that ensued, feels those who are invested in change, whether it be concerning criminal justice reform or a bill in Jefferson City, have demonstrated the right way.
She says, “Where I believe the unrest and the non-civility is really coming from are the folks who are really capitalizing on these issues who may not be the ones invested in the conversation.”
Morris noted, “We should respect everyone’s right of Freedom of Speech and let people know what you think. But on the other hand we’ve got to have civility and we don’t wanna be burning down our own cities.”
The St. Louis protests have been largely peaceful during the day, but police have made arrests overnight amid instances of property damage and vandalism.
Back at Missouri State University, recent demonstrations aren’t just a chance for students to express their opinion but for administrators to offer their support. At its two major rallies so far this year, university President Clif Smart and other officials have either been present or spoken.
“From the most conservation evangelical student on one side to the most liberal student on the other side, they both have a right to their views and they all have a right to be heard,” says Smart.
“I’ve never felt that Clif Smart has not been for us,” says MSU College Republicans President Chris Beyer, noting his organization feels they have support from administrators.
But according to Beyer, faculty tends to be more liberal, and says conservative college students can feel silenced. Those relationships in the classroom can be strengthened, he says, through healthy debate. Beyer, who is as a socio-political communications major, feels he gets that from his professors.
Beyer adds if colleges in general allow students to “delve into either public policies or current events and not have a threat of being silenced or immediately being told you’re wrong that’s where we can start to improve.”
Jimmy Moore, the College Democrats’ president, says administrative support is “comforting to students.”
“And their presence there brings a legitimacy to what we’re doing and makes it much easier to be civil,” says Moore.
Moore notes it’s difficult to have a conversation with conservatives on certain issues, but knows there’s plenty where both sides can agree. He points to Rep. Quade’s collaboration with others like Rep. Morris, as an example.
“And that gives me a lot of comfort to know that we do have a lot in common. Because in my heart I’m hoping that everyone who’s in Jeff City or [Washington] D.C. has America at their heart and wants our citizens and our society to thrive.”
Beyer is optimistic that students can look beyond one’s political identity and engage in more conversations.
He says, “To be able to go and talk to somebody else that perhaps believes something else is very important. And to come together as a community, to come together as a campus we need to make sure that we’re having those conversations, that we’re making those friendships. Because at the end of the day, the other person’s human.”
Upon concluding his State of the University address Monday, President Smart acknowledged there are many divisions in our country at the moment. He implored the university family to be leaders in how they engage in and respond to actions surrounding such issues.
Smart said, “Let’s continue to emphasize our Public Affairs Mission of community engagement, ethical leadership and cultural competence. And let’s do it with an emphasis on inclusion, civility and kindness.”
Follow Scott Harvey on Twitter: @scottksmu