Siena hosts a Constitution Day event each year as a forum spirited conversation about what the U.S. Constitution means to our nation as a whole, and to its citizens in our everyday lives.
Casey Seiler, editor-in-chief of the Albany Times Union, joined Siena President Chris Gibson ’86, Ph.D., on September 22 to examine “The Effects of National Political Polarization on Free Speech, Academic Freedom and Civility in Discourse: A Discussion.” The audience gathered in person at Serra Manor with more joining via Zoom.
In recent years, Americans seem to be moving away from middle ground and congregating at far ends of the political and social spectrum. Made more intense by the echo chamber of social media and 24/7 cable news, these perceived differences are breaking down civil discourse in our country.
“Politics has changed. Pride of place should go the people’s representatives, but increasingly it’s about the Napoleonic battle for the presidency and consolidation of power,” Gibson said. “Also, people are trying to build their brands by becoming firebrands. They feel they have to be bombastic to build a brand, and some members [of Congress] are gaining a strong following without passing a single law.”
He said a college campus is precisely the place to have the open-minded debates about important issues of the day.
“You don’t ban books, ideas, or theories; you debate them. Education is not about indoctrination; it’s exploring original sources and expanding knowledge. Our Founders all agreed that the America experiment would not work without an educated populace.”
“Iron sharpens iron. I want my students to bring their best argument.”
Seiler disapproved of attempts by governments to ban the teaching of certain subjects such as critical race theory.
“We can’t have the government trying to shut down thoughts and theories they don’t approve of,” he said.
Sami DeRagon ’22, was the student moderator of the event.
“Being able to talk about the Constitution and how to promote civil discourse on our campus is really important because we need to make sure that people from a large variety of backgrounds feel welcome to contribute to our political discourse on campus,” said DeRagon, who is also president of Siena’s Student Senate and Political Science Society. “Our Constitution Day discussion reinforces the idea that here at Siena we are committed to academic freedom and critical thinking skills that will guide us as we move through the world.”
Leonard Cutler, Ph.D., professor of political science and pre-law advisor, headed up organization of the event and was its chief moderator.
“Constitution Day provides the Siena College community the opportunity to reflect upon themes and issues that directly impact our lives and relate to specific provisions of our cherished founding governing document,” said Cutler. “This document was written when our nation was created in the latter part of the eighteenth century, and still has real meaning for us in the twenty-first century.”
Political science major Brendan McDonnell ’22 said the event was “very successful and thought-provoking” in light of increasing political polarization throughout our country.
“I was most interested to hear about what President Gibson and Mr. Seiler thought of the role and power that private social media companies have on our democratic process and whether they contribute to, or stifle, the ‘marketplace of ideas.’”