Nov. 14, 2006

First Amendment scholar stresses importance of public forums and of balancing biased media reports

On the busy streets, would you stop to chat with a stranger who wants to share her thoughts? Or, would you express your opinion to a stranger with different views in a city park?

Possibly not. But speaking in such public forums as streets and parks can reach a diverse audience, and without these intellectual exchanges, we tend to develop polarized opinions, warned First Amendment scholar Cass Sunstein, presenting the inaugural Milton Konvitz Memorial Lecture Nov. 8 in Cornell's Ives Hall.

"Public forums serve the purpose of giving unanticipated, unchosen and, sometimes, unliked encounters," said Sunstein, the Karl N. Llewellyn Distinguished Service Professor of Jurisprudence at the University of Chicago. Sunstein has been involved in constitution-writing and law reform activities in Ukraine, Poland, China, South Africa and Russia. He has authored over 25 books, including "," "The Second Bill of Rights" and, most recently, "Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge."

The public forum doctrine is a lesser-known part of the First Amendment. "It is an affirmative side of the amendment that requires government action, not government absence," said Sunstein, who believes government has a duty to support public forums where people of all opinions, practices and beliefs who would not normally meet in their daily lives can talk with each other.

To illustrate the importance of public forums, Sunstein described an experiment: A group of Republican residents of Colorado Springs, Colo., were asked to give their opinion privately before and after a group discussion on such contentious issues as same-sex civil union and affirmative action. After the group discussion, which was a time to talk with like-minded people, the researchers found that the conservatives became more conservative and the liberals more liberal.

"If the media is working well, people cannot live in information cocoons or echo chambers of their own design," said Sunstein. However, Sunstein said that in reality, many media outlets are "biased and self-selected," and produce only like-minded opinions and news in a "personalized communication universe."

"Threat of polarization will be heightened when liberals will be linked to other liberals, and conservatives will be linked to other conservatives," said Sunstein. To bring more balance to stories in "biased" media, he proposed citing or putting hyperlinks to disagreeing articles on the Web so readers can read about the issue from a different perspective. "The National Review must be linked to the Dissent and The New Republic, and the Dissent must be linked to the National Review," said Sunstein.

The lecture was named after Milton Konvitz, one of the earliest faculty members in Cornell's School of Industrial and Labor Relations. During his 27-year tenure, Konvitz taught a popular two-semester class, The Development of American Ideals, to more than 8,000 undergraduates. For three decades, he also served as the director of Cornell's Liberian Codification Projection, which compiled Liberia's legal code that is still in use today.

The lecture was made possible through an endowment donated by Irwin Jacobs '54, BEE '56, co-founder of QUALCOMM Inc. and a pioneer of digital wireless technology, and his wife, Joan Jacobs '54.

Alex Kwan is a writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.