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The Forum | Freedom of Expression

ASU students dive into civil debate and affirm freedom of expression on campus

March 9, 2020 by Doug Sprei

Phoenix, AZ, March 3:  A student-led debate about America’s southern border wall, held in the evening at Arizona State University (ASU), filled every chair in the room.

The event was put on by ACTA in partnership with the national depolarization organization known as Better Angels, along with students from the Arizona State University chapter of Bridge USA

Although I have been managing our partnership with Better Angels and organizing events since 2018, this was the first debate I had solo responsibility for chairing. Fortunately, I was able to train under a master teacher: April Lawson, the lead architect of debates at Better Angels, along with the prep squad of Luke Nathan Phillips and Isabel Soto who lead Better Angels’ Washington, DC Alliance.

Students and community members began arriving at 6:30 pm and enjoyed informal conversation, food and refreshments. (We learned early on that providing pizza, Chik-Fil-A or similar fare is helpful for drawing strong student attendance at night on a college campus.)

ACTA’s President Michael Poliakoff spoke to the assembled group about the purpose of the event, encouraging everyone to enter into a profoundly American experience of respectful dialogue and civic engagement. Then I instructed the group on the various procedures and rules for our parliamentary-style debate, and launched it with the tap of a gavel.

Students from Bridge ASU ignited the dialogue with opening speeches in favor of or against the highly charged immigration topic: “Resolved: The United States Should Build the Southern Border Wall.” The remarkable dialogue that followed transcended rancor and ordinary argumentation and allowed space for nuanced viewpoints.

Throughout the evening, many audience members asked thoughtful questions of the speakers or delivered their own speeches for or against the resolution. There was even participation from two Native American speakers, who discussed the impact of the border wall on nature and sacred tribal lands, opening up a dimension to the conversation that most of us hadn’t considered.

Whatever bit of nervousness I felt while flying solo as a debate chair for the first time melted away as the students showed deep respect for each other, in the midst of disagreements. After the final gavel was struck, our obligatory debriefing session was spirited and excellent. Many students stayed afterward and kept conversations going late into the night. I hardly slept afterward but it was worth it.

By many accounts, these debates are transformative for participants. They serve up a vivid impression of free speech and depolarization in action on college campuses, showing what civil dialogue in America can be. Most of all, collaborating closely with highly engaged students—as we have done at colleges like Arizona State, American University, UC Berkeley, Christopher Newport University and others—helps them develop the essential skills of critical thinking and civil engagement that are essential for their success as America’s future leaders.

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