Civility symposium focuses on treatment of others

A Supreme Court free speech case over a protest at a Marine's funeral and a college student's suicide were among the topics at the third annual civility symposium in Columbia.

More than 220 people turned out to hear the panel discussion on civility in democracy lead by P.M. Forni, the author of "Choosing Civility," the 2003 book of 25 rules that inspired the county libraries' "Choose Civility in Howard County" campaign.

Forni, a Johns Hopkins University professor of Romance languages and literature, told the audience Wednesday at the Bain Center in Harper's Choice that he happened to be at Rutgers University to launch "the most ambitious civility project in the U.S." at the time police discovered the body of Tyler Clementi.

Clementi is the freshman student who killed himself after classmates streamed a video of his sexual encounter with another man on the Internet, police say.

"The Internet is a collector of the moral toxins in society due to anonymity [of its users]," Forni said, adding that Clementi's death "underscores the necessity for intervention" in the way people treat each other.

Sara Calvert, a panelist and junior at Centennial High School in Ellicott City, said the Internet's inherent veil of secrecy can lead to "cyber-bullying, with people writing terrible things" about other students.

"You don't have to be the biggest kid in the schoolyard anymore" to succeed in bullying, said Calvert, who is president of the Howard County Association of Student Councils.

Moderator Korva Coleman, a National Public Radio newscaster and 20-year Columbia resident, asked the panel whether free speech should be limited and whether some speech should be criminalized.

Susan Herbst, author of "Rude Democracy: Civility and Incivility in American Politics," identified herself as "a free-speech absolutist" who doesn't want to see any tampering with the First Amendment to the Constitution.

But the executive vice chancellor of the University System of Georgia suggested that a course in debate skills could be added to the elementary-school curriculum "to give students the tools to learn to argue effectively," starting at a younger age.

But Coleman pressed the issue. "Is it OK to limit speech that wounds people deeply?" she asked.

She singled out the Supreme Court case of Snyder v. Phelps, in which Albert Snyder is suing Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church after church members picketed Snyder's Marine son's funeral in 2006 in Westminster with signs reading, "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" and "God Hates Fags."

"What about women seeking abortions? Is it OK for protesters who feel abortion is a grave, evil crime to get within eight feet of these women?" she asked.

Forni said he believes there are instances where freedom of speech should not be permitted.

Coleman asked, "Is the answer to bad speech more speech?" She pointed out that Jon Stewart of TV's "The Daily Show" suggested people defuse hurtful protests by wielding signs such as "Corduroy Is A Sin" and "God Hates Flags."

Valerie Gross, CEO and executive director of the county library system, introduced the evening by showing slides of some of the imitations of the library's 60,000 green car-magnets that read, "Choose Civility in Howard County," such as "Choose Insanity," "Choose Senility" and "Embrace Hostility."

"We take our work seriously, but we take ourselves lightly," Gross had said with a chuckle, adding that these spoofs only serve to further the county's civility initiative to enhance the quality of life through respect, consideration, empathy and tolerance.

Coleman interrupted the panel discussion to call on Erin McClure, an audience member who walked from the back of the near-capacity auditorium to one of the two microphones set up for audience questions.

"The burden falls on the people who are trying to be civil," protested McClure, a Columbia resident. "In raising children, they are taught to step away [from bullies], to ask bullies to stop and then to ignore them. But there aren't enough people stopping the incivility."

Herbst said civility is a constructive approach to problem-solving, but added, "We are not making a lot of headway" as a society.

"A certain amount of incivility is inevitable because it's titillating, exciting, dramatic and social," she said. "Something in the human spirit is drawn to incivility, or it wouldn't continue to exist."

William Griffith, a panelist and professor at George Washington University, said, "We are struggling to combine feeling passion with acting civil."

Coleman drew applause when she told the audience that she practices "guerrilla civility" by placing "Choose Civility" magnets on vehicles that sport obnoxious bumper stickers.

Afterward, Gross said that civility is "a work in progress" and "a conscientious choice."

"I'm especially appreciative of the panel's positive ending," she said. "It's important to note the progress we have made as well as the progress we have yet to make."

Following the panel, students and social studies teachers worked with Forni to craft a "Proclamation of Civil Behavior," and the professor said he was impressed by the level of sophistication displayed by the students' arguments.

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