Benjamin Franklin closed the Constitutional Convention in 1787 by announcing to citizens outside Independence Hall the arrival of “a republic—if you can keep it!” Legitimate Democracy is more fragile than we care to admit.
Aggressive hectoring, reducing many town hall meetings to shout-fests, has become the headline these past few months. And now dozens of congressmen are ducking even their most basic responsibility—to meet with their constituents in local forums or town halls to address their grievances.
Worse, university campuses, once refuges for free speech advocates, now commonly fall prey to the Heckler’s veto and all too often cancel controversial speakers.
We are from two different parties; we debate regularly our often divergent political philosophies. We agree, however, that if we can’t figure out how to have civil exchanges between citizens and their representatives, our democracy is in grave danger.
Recent events at the University of Virginia give us hope that browbeaters are on the retreat. Our school was asked to host our local congressman for a public forum. This community is deeply divided over many issues, from climate change and coal, to Confederate War statues in our parks and Russian meddling in our elections. Several local government meetings have recently disintegrated into shouting matches amidst physical threats.
Rival groups in our blue college town—surrounded by bright red rural counties—assailed our invitation to a Freedom Caucus member to speak in our school’s 230 seat auditorium. We were pressed to cancel the event or move the conversation to a 14,000 seat sports arena to accommodate seating demand in turn facilitating a shout-fest between the congressman’s passionate supporters and his ardent critics.
The president of our university was counseled that there was substantial risk of violence if the event went forward. The danger came not from determined anti-Trump groups like Indivisible, or University Republicans, who support our congressman’s small government agenda, but rather from outside provocateurs who have sparked violence at several events across the country.
After consultation with state and federal law enforcement officials, University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan made an exceptionally difficult decision. Protecting first amendment freedoms was worth the risk.
Preparations for the event advanced amidst a climate of fear, fueled by divisive and often hostile rhetoric in the community. Viewing the mishandling of events on other campuses where academic freedom took a hit—from Middlebury to Berkeley—we took extra precautions to try to run a fair and transparent exchange.
The difference is the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy went ahead with the public forum. Attendance was secured by a random lottery among district voters. Written questions came from hundreds of voters and an impartial moderator permitted unlimited follow ups allowing students and constituents alike to interrogate our guest directly.
Guests were checked for weapons. Bomb sniffing dogs swept the building. Some in attendance wore bullet proof vests. Angry confrontations outside were defused by the effective deployment of law enforcement personnel. Disruptions inside were responded to with a pledge to remove and detain those who would deny fellow citizens’ rights to be heard and the congressman’s right to respond.
Questions were thoughtful, passionate and personal. The congressman responded to unrelenting criticism with candor and conviction. The session was spontaneously extended for a second full hour, telecast live locally into primetime.
The rights of citizens to petition and confront their elected representatives was affirmed. There were zero injuries and zero arrests, a tribute to exceptionally wise judgment by the police. In the end, faith in democracy felt justified: neighbors actually began to listen if not to agree with one another. Only by doing the hard work and sustaining our commitment to both free as well as civil dialog can we begin to restore necessary faith in our democratic institutions.