Oct 17

Politics of Purple: How one student organization focuses on dialogue, not partisanship

Published on: Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Editors's Note: The Politics of Purple
In the next month, there will be a lot of debate about red states and blue states, and a lot of the attention will be on states that are purple, places where they say the numbers are too close to call.  However, unlike the pundits who are waiting for the states to turn either red or blue, at the University of St. Thomas School of Law we embrace the nuance and complexity of purple. The Politics of Purple is a four-part series showing how the School of Law fosters political debate that defies easy sound bites and resists polarizing caricatures.  In the series we hope to model and demonstrate how members of the law school community who are on opposite sides of controversial issues can disagree without being disagreeable, learning from each other and enriching our political culture in the process.  Last week's story about dialogue among faculty can be found here.

With the presidential election next month, political tempers are beginning to flare. Not that this is unusual. In fact, the nature of America’s democratic system encourages all parties to debate. Nevertheless, the 2012 election has become especially contentious. Some critics argue that issues of public policy are lost in the shuffle of such divisive party affiliations.

However, a newly-minted student organization at the University of St. Thomas School of Law resists that argument. Instead, the Public Discourse group focuses on quite the opposite: open, non-partisan debate about how public policy issues intersect with law.  “Public Discourse was created to give people from a variety of political and philosophical perspectives an opportunity to dialogue,” says David Best (2L), president of the organization.

The idea for Public Discourse began when several 1L students formed a study group. “[W]e often digressed into policy discussions, but we also managed to usually keep it civil,” Best remembers. Several group members desired even more discussion. Hence, the Public Discourse group was born.

“One of the things that make us unique is that while all the members of the group have political preferences, the group itself is committed to being non-partisan,” Best says. Although most public policy discussions inevitably involve politics, the group does not advocate any certain stance on issues. Its sole purpose is to talk.

“Society in general is too singular and partisan in their fact finding. When we can't even agree on the facts, it hinders the quality of the discussion and in the political context, [and] the quality of resulting legislation and public policy,” Best says.
He believes the group’s mission— to provide a healthy discussion forum— will blend well with the overall environment at UST Law. “I have been impressed with the bipartisan nature of the school's atmosphere.  Certain individuals certainly have opinions, but by and large it has been positive,” Best says.  

But while the UST environment welcomes discussion, Best sees an opportunity to strengthen the quality of dialogue on campus. “There are a good variety of guest speakers on all imaginable topics. But there is often little time for questions during or following the events,” he explains.

Therefore, the Public Discourse group will sponsor several events throughout the year that facilitate conversations between speakers and the audience and allow ample question time. In theory, active discussion and debate should curb purely partisan presentations.

The group’s first event on Oct. 30 will focus on how to effectively conduct public discourse. The event features UST Law professors Mark Osler and Teresa Collett, two colleagues who have publically advocated different sides of the marriage amendment. Nonetheless, they often seek each other’s opinion and exemplify the art of “doing public discourse well.”

The Public Discourse group also anticipates tapping into expertise of UST Law students. “While outside experts and the teaching staff are great, we think the student body has a voice to add to the mix,” Best says. “Get involved! We need everyone to be a part of this.”

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