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Civility: Let's try that free speech option in 2014

The First Amendment protects our freedom to say and write just about anything we want. But that doesn't mean we ought to, particularly in public life.

The difference rests between "can" and "should."

Our nation's founders were no strangers to rude, callous and raucous debate in public life and to vicious commentary, even by today's "anything goes" online standards. Sex scandals, infidelity, personal weaknesses and even religious differences were exposed, debated and mocked in public life and in the newspapers of the day with personal glee and political purpose.

The self-governing system eventually created for the United States depends on vigorous public involvement and debate, but it also depends on a measure of what we call today "civility" to function. Not civility in the sense of polite nods and watered-down language -- that's not "free speech" in any sense -- but rather a thinking response and respect for robust debate about ideas and policies.

The Bill of Rights, led by the First Amendment, rests on the creative tension of rights and responsibilities. It is civility in its historical meaning -- involved, engaged citizenry -- that powers those two great civic engines.

A First Amendment advocate should be the last to call for laws or other official limits on speech, such as campus speech codes or restrictions on campaign speech. But congressional gridlock, growing public disaffection with politics and growing concern about online discussions perpetually locked into the lowest level of comments, require a non-governmental response.

Journalists are a good starting point for self-initiated positive action. A recent gathering of approximately 40 practitioners at Newseum in Washington gives hope in that direction.

The group met in early December to talk about incivility in the media, in a multi-day session sponsored by Newseum Institute, Poynter Institute for Media Studies and National Institute for Civil Discourse. A concluding task was to set some core values for journalists and to face the serious issue of whether this group or any other actually might produce change.

A good starting point for the organizers (Note: I was one of them) was to assemble a group that resembles the nation in 2014: Journalists from traditional media and new media, with great diversity in age groups, ethnicity, location and views.

The values statement stressed truth, independence and transparency, as well as focusing on the free press role envisioned by Madison, Jefferson and others: Exposing wrongdoing, airing of multiple points of view, empowering people with information needed for self-governance, and providing the means for the nation to hear from "the disenfranchised and voices that are not being heard."

Worthy goals all, for a nation that is without doubt increasingly diverse and increasingly divided -- and also a good refocusing for a free press battered by falling and fading revenue sources, diminished public respect and the loss of many of its most-veteran participants.

In the mid-1940s, journalists and academics joined in a post-World War II seminar popularly known as the Hutchins Commission to consider the role of journalism in a cynical, war-weary world. According to reports of the time, it was an era in which the public had little respect for the large media enterprises of the day, finding them increasingly uncivil, unconcerned with or unable to perform their "watchdog on government" role -- and out of touch with news consumers. Sound familiar?

There is no minimizing the difficulty ahead in reshaping public debate that now focuses on the shrill, in which partisan confrontation often overwhelms nonpartisan compromise.

Perhaps journalists are the group of that who can move the idea of "civility" from premise to practice -- a New Year resolution with real promise.

Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the Institute's First Amendment Center.

gpolicinski@newseum.org.