Wisconsin Lawyer: President's Message Express Your Thoughts, But Don't Shut Down Others':

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    President's Message
    Express Your Thoughts, But Don't Shut Down Others'

    The oath lawyers take to uphold the constitution carries with it the obligation to promote and protect free speech.

    Paul G. Swanson

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    Americans are becoming “balkanized” in our thought. It is disappointing to see so many commentators, politicians, and pundits vilifying not only those who don’t agree with them but any idea that they personally find repugnant and unacceptable.

    Paul Swansoncom pswanson oshkoshlawyers Paul G. Swanson, U.W. 1979, of Steinhilber, Swanson, Mares, Marone & McDermott, Oshkosh, is president of the State Bar of Wisconsin. Reach him by com pswanson oshkoshlawyers email.

    Many people pay lip service to free speech but, when confronted with opinions with which they disagree, react by shouting down the speaker instead of engaging in reasoned debate, the presentation of facts and substantive arguments, and a discussion of why the opinions might be offensive. Too many people hurl insults and engage in name-calling. Some people accuse speakers of causing emotional injury or making them feel marginalized. These reactions can bring discussion and debate to an end.

    Steve Bannon is giving a talk at the University of Chicago soon. One can imagine the reactions he will elicit. The University of Chicago administration, however, believes in the freedom of expression and the First Amendment, and in 2015, a committee released a statement articulating the school’s commitment to free, robust, and uninhibited debate and deliberation. Here are a few key points for lawyers to keep in mind:

    “The principle of complete freedom of speech on all subjects has from the beginning been regarded as fundamental to the University of Chicago. This principle cannot now, nor at any future time, be called into question.” (Pres. William R. Harper, 1902.)

    Thirty years later, Pres. Robert M. Hutchins insisted that:

    “… the cure for ideas we oppose lies through an open discussion rather than through inhibition. Free inquiry is indispensable to the good life, that universities exist for the sake of such inquiry.”

    It is lawyers' responsibility to promote freedom of expression, by advocating that ideas should be debated and developed through rational discourse rather than what appears to be happening around us today.

    And Pres. Hanna H. Gray said,

    “Education should not be intended to make people uncomfortable, it is meant to make them think. Hard thought and therefore strong disagreement, independent judgment and the questioning of stubborn assumptions can flourish in an environment of the greatest freedom.”

    These principles lie at the bedrock of what lawyers do, and we should be advancing these ideas as individuals and through the State Bar of Wisconsin. The U.S. system of justice is based on a responsibility to uphold ideals of mutual respect for litigants and the court. Lawyers argue the merits of cases against competing assertions and live with courts’ decisions. This peaceful yet contentious process is what maintains our society and prevents chaos and anarchy. That debate and deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or most members of the community to be offensive or unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed is also a fundamental societal tenet. 

    We all represent our clients, who have differing points of view, to the best of our ability. Even the most heinous of alleged criminals is entitled to fair representation by a lawyer.

    It is lawyers’ responsibility to promote freedom of expression, by advocating that ideas should be debated and developed through rational discourse rather than what appears to be happening around us today. We should not idly stand by and allow the loudest voices to control the national discourse. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, and everyone is entitled to attempt to change that opinion. That is called freedom of speech.