School Libraries in Peril

Guest blog by Shireen Campbell and Skylar McVicar

Fueled by legislative actions in multiple states, wholesale objections to school library books have risen dramatically in the past few months.  News stories document books covered with brown paper, empty shelves, and even proposals to defund entire state library systems.  If a book includes a queer character who dares to live happily or shows that policing practices may vary depending on one’s skin color, the book has likely landed on a list of objectionable materials.

Current and seemingly successful statewide legislative efforts to edit school library content mark an alarming escalation in attempts to control what reading children can access at the local school district level.  How are the censors making such headway when multiple court cases have established that school library collections are crucial to the unimpeded exercise of First Amendment rights?

As held by the Supreme Court majority in the landmark 1982 Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 v. Pico, “the right to receive ideas is a necessary predicate to the recipient’s meaningful exercise of his own rights of speech, press, and political freedom.” School libraries are a crucial site for access to new ideas, and, as held in Minarcini v. Strongsville City School District (1976), for both dissemination and discussion of these ideas.

The right to receive ideas is a necessary predicate to the recipient’s meaningful exercise of his own rights of speech, press, and political freedom.

(Union Free V. Pico)

Given prior court decisions that upheld student First Amendment rights to receive information through school libraries, we question if the recent wave of legislative actions in pursuit of sanitizing collections is likely to be deemed unconstitutional.  One potential answer is to analyze what actions and opinions are common to school boards that previously attempted and failed to limit library content in four precedent-setting cases. In each case, the board’s actions impeded student recipient’s “right to receive” (Union Free V. Pico) by

  • Ignoring existing policy around objections to materials in a classroom or library context
  • Insisting that opinion, hearsay, and/or misinterpretation of literature or its pedagogic purposes outweigh any expert knowledge
  • Advocating a return to or defense of traditional “universal” values over cultural change

For example, in Minarcini, a 6th Circuit Court of Appeals case from 1976, a school board member complained about Heller’s WW2 classic Catch 22 and two Kurt Vonnegut novels. In response, the school board created a committee to review the books and met with a faculty and citizens committee, both of which argued for the inclusion of the books in the library.  However, the school board ignored the recommendations of the committees they created and removed the books anyway. 

Two decades later, in Case Vs. Unified School District (1995), the Missouri district had no policy for assessing book donations.  When the groundbreaking lesbian teen romance 1982’s Annie On My Mind, and another book were donated to high school libraries in the district, board members criticized the “homosexual” content. The school board then created a policy for book donations that included a review committee and asked them to examine the donated books.  Subsequently, the review committee cited favorable reviews of Garden’s novel and recommended its inclusion.

Yet, dismissing the expert knowledge and the media specialists they had consulted, the board voted to remove the donated novels because homosexuality was both “sinful in the eyes of God” and unconfirmed scientifically as “a normal or genetic way of life.”  Referencing case precedent (namely Union Free V. Pico), the U.S District Court found that the school district removed the novel because they disagreed with the ideas it contained and unconstitutionally sought to “prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.”

Threatened by societal change, board members in all four court cases repeatedly promoted a conservative agenda in their grounds for complaint. Many of the nine books involved in the 1982 Pico case have minority authors, and others have countercultural content, highlighting a range of American experiences. The board condemned these books because some “contained profanities, some were sexually explicit, and some were offensive to racial, religious or ethnic groups.” In so doing, the Board promoted a “conservative educational philosophy” and resistance to including underrepresented voices.

A more recent court case, Counts v. Cedarville School District (2003), focused on the global phenomenon of Harry Potter.  Board members objected to the series’ depiction of “disobedience and disrespect for authority,” behavior which occurs often in the world of young adult literature (and young adults) because they feared it would lead to “juvenile delinquency” or a Columbine.  As the Court notes in its decision, these “speculative apprehensions: were based on no facts.”

[None] of the three Board members was aware of any actual disobedience or disrespect that had flowed from a reading of the Harry Potter books. . . . Such speculative apprehensions of possible disturbance are not sufficient to justify the extreme sanction of restricting the free exercise of First Amendment rights in a public school library.

Counts  v. Cedarville School District

Presuming similar biases in an effort to limit access to books that question adult wisdom and a conservative status quo, current state actions would seem likely to meet the same fate in court.  In a subsequent post, we will explore the Parental Rights in Education legislation in Florida and consider to what extent this seems likely to falter in the face of case precedent in favor of the First Amendment in such settings.

About the Authors

Shireen Campbell is a professor of English and Educational Studies and Director of the First Year Writing Program at Davidson College.

Skylar McVicar is a senior Politics, Ethics, & Religion interdisciplinary major at Davidson College and will be attending Duke University School of Law in the fall.

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In this video, the First Amendment Museum hosts a discussion and debate on a proposal in the Maine Legislature (LD 123) that would make public schools subject to Maine’s anti-obscenity law and could ban schools from providing students with books and other educational materials considered obscene.

The bill was proposed by Sen. Jim Libby (R-Cumberland), who said his bill would protect children from inappropriate materials and provide a clear standard for what content would be allowed in schools.

Joining us for this debate is Nick Murray, Director of Policy with Maine Policy Institute, and Savannah Sessions, a school librarian and Legislative Chair for the Maine Library Association.

About the Presenters

Nick Murray

Nick Murray serves as Director of Policy with Maine Policy Institute, developing MPI’s policy research, analysis, and strategic advocacy priorities. He is the author of numerous articles and publications, such as the 50-State Emergency Powers Scorecard, Long-Term Growth vs. Short-Term Gimmicks: Maine’s Economy and Gov. Mills’ Second Biennial Budget, and the School Choice Map of Maine.

Savannah Sessions

Savannah has been a school librarian since 2015 and an educator since 2012. She has a passion for YA literature, information access and literacy, and library advocacy. Savannah works tirelessly to promote the notion that libraries are so much more than buildings full of books – they are community hubs. Outside of her professional life, Savannah has a great interest in historic preservation/conservation – especially of historic windows and gilded objects, good food, and mountain biking. She is the Legislative Chair for the Maine Library Association.

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Matal v. Tam encourages diversity controversially. As a teen, Simon Tam experienced racially motivated bullying due to his Chinese heritage. He learned to counter this bigotry through humor and the reappropriation of ethnic slurs. When he started his band as a bassist, Simon wanted to call it The Slants. However, when Tam attempted to trademark the band’s name, they ran into the 1946 Lanham Act, which, as the chief trademark law in the US, prohibited trademarks that “disparage” any person or group. As a result, the US Patent and Trademark Office denied Tam’s application for the name. Tam sued because this violated his First Amendment right to free speech. 

The case went to the US Supreme Court, with the court ruling in favor of Tam. The Court held that while the name is a bad word, the content doesn’t merit a restriction. In other words, we must tolerate “the thought that we hate.” Simon Tam’s case is a benefit to diversity in the public discourse. 

Simon Tam in front of the Supreme Court, courtesy of Simon Tam.

Tam’s case is controversial. Is a trademarked racial slur appropriate for the name of an organization? The Court says it may be, or at least it is permissible to be. But controversy is a welcome sight for diversity. Controversy brings dialogue and discussion on the merits of a particular action or enterprise. Dialogue is inherently diversity-improving. Talking and implementing feedback from one another is how we progress. But not everyone has the same perspective on an issue. We all have different experiences, even though the “what” or “how” of any experience may seem the same. Dialogue is how we understand these differences in sameness. 

Dialogue arises from the Tam case through the merits of the individual case itself and by imagining other cases. For example, imagine a band named the “Redskins” or the “Wet-backs.” I don’t like these names or words, I find them racist and deplorable, but that doesn’t mean what they invoke is out of the marketplace of ideas. In fact, it is because of what they invoke that may make them worthy of discussion. This naming practice is similar to shock-jocking on the radio. A controversial opinion or statement is made, and that gets people talking. When people talk about their experiences, they realize that not everyone shares the same experience. This action is the expansion of diversity through dialogue. And this is what these band names do. This is what Simon Tam and the Slants have accomplished. 

About the author

Steven Santiago is currently an intern at the First Amendment Museum and a 4th-year student at the University of Maine studying Psychology, Sociology, and Legal Studies. He is a community organizer on campus, working with students and organizations to increase their political agency in Maine. His current ambition is to achieve a Master’s in Social Work, where he can further develop his organizing skills.

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The Short Life and Curious Death of Free Speech in America

March 23, 2023 @ 7:00 pm 9:00 pm

Critically acclaimed journalist and bestselling author Ellis Cose joins the First Amendment Museum for a discussion focused on his book The Short Life and Curious Death of Free Speech in America, which explores our right to free speech in America and how that right is crumbling under the combined weight of technology, polarization, money, and systematized lying.

This event is part of our Speaker Series and is open to all.

About Ellis Cose

Ellis Cose is the author of more than a dozen books on issues of national and international concern. A Chicago native, Cose holds a master’s degree in science, technology, and public policy from George Washington University. For 17 years, Cose was a columnist and contributing editor for Newsweek magazine. He is a former chairman of the editorial board and editorial page editor of the New York Daily News. Cose was the inaugural writer-in-residence for the ACLU. He also served as moderator of a series of dialogues between the NYPD brass and various communities in New York and as senior adviser to the Pinkerton Foundation. Cose is also an independent radio producer and a popular lecturer and public speaker.

Free with an RSVP

Seasonal Displays: Religion and Reindeer

Guest blog by Herbert G. Grey

As the calendar turns over to December, when 97% of Americans celebrate Christmas in some manner, questions invariably arise about the propriety of seasonal displays in public spaces. Many focus on and celebrate the religious significance of Christmas. The thoughts of most turn to “the holidays.” Still others with a “separation of church and state” mindset prefer to sanitize public places from any vestige of religious expression, despite the religious origins of many “holidays.” The variety of these perspectives reveals why we have a First Amendment in the first place. First Amendment law upholding the propriety of seasonal displays on and around government property is fairly well-established. Whether people cherish Christmas or relish the sights and sounds of “the season,” they will find the United States Supreme Court is not a grinch. Those who favor a more strict-separationist, secular perspective under the Establishment Clause can find solace in knowing that seasonal religious expression generally must be accompanied by secular elements or have some underlying historical background or tradition.

The U.S. Steel Creche, December 29, 2006. CC BY-SA 2.5


Protection of Religious Speech. The Supreme Court has consistently said, “Our precedent establishes that private religious speech, far from being a First Amendment orphan, is as fully protected under the Free Speech Clause as secular private expression.” In a later Ten Commandments monument case, the Supreme Court affirmed that there is “no constitutional requirement which makes it necessary for government to be hostile to religion and to throw its weight against efforts to widen the effective scope of religious influence.”

Text, History, and Tradition. It is no secret that religious expression has long been a feature of government proceedings and expression in public spaces. In Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States (1892), the Supreme Court recited dozens of historical examples of religious influence on American government. Most people are familiar with images of crosses at Arlington National Cemetery, cross-shaped war memorials, and Ten Commandment monuments in public places, most of which have been upheld. McCreary County v. ACLU (2005) disallowed a Ten Commandment monument because it had solely a religious purpose in being placed where it was on public property.

 “Legislative” prayers to open official proceedings at all levels of government have also been approved as “part of the fabric of our society.” More recently, in Town of Greece v. Galloway (2014), the Supreme Court upheld prayers to open city council meetings based on “tradition” as long as it “does not coerce participation by nonadherents.”

Whose Speech is It? The starting point is to consider whether seasonal displays are private speech or government speech. Since the First Amendment regulates only government restrictions on free exercise of religion or free speech, there is generally no problem with any federal, state, or local government allowing private expression in public places on the same basis as other private speech. At the same time, the Establishment Clause prohibits the federal government (and later state and local governments through the Fourteenth Amendment) from sponsoring or approving one religion- or lack of religion- over another. 

The Lemon Test. When the Establishment Clause may come into play, so does the infamous “Lemon test.” Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) required proof of government action having a secular purpose, a primary effect that “neither advances nor inhibits religion” and not fostering “an excessive government entanglement with religion” to avoid Establishment Clause problems. The Lemon test has been the subject of criticism in the Supreme Court and elsewhere for some time, but it was recently put in the grave for good in Shurtleff v. City of Boston (2022) (the “Boston flagpole” case) and Kennedy v. Bremerton School District (2022).


Since most or all seasonal displays have historically been government-owned and operated, they are typically considered government speech, historically implicating government establishment of religion under the “Lemon test.”  Three cases illustrate how the law concerning seasonal displays has developed:

  1. Lynch v. Donnelly (1984) considered a government display that included a nativity scene, a Santa Claus house, reindeer, a Christmas tree, candy-cane poles, and a “Seasons Greetings” sign. Thus was born the famous “two reindeer” (or “three reindeer”) rule whereby government displays are not impermissibly advancing the Christian religion if they celebrate the “holiday season” by including other secular symbols; 
  2. County of Allegheny v. ACLU (1989) involved a long-time private nativity display owned by a private religious organization on the grand staircase in the county courthouse. The only other private expression given the same opportunity was a Jewish menorah accompanied by other secular symbols. The Supreme Court said that the nativity display violated the Establishment Clause because it featured Christian religious expression and nothing else, but the Jewish display did not violate the Establishment Clause because it included other secular symbols along with religious symbols; and
  3. Pleasant Grove v. Summum (2009) arose out of a display whereby a city government, over time, allowed multiple privately donated monuments in a public park. The City retained final authority over the displays and had the right to reject others because the existing displays were varied, some were of long-standing origin, and together the displays had religious, historical, and secular components. 

In an era when diverse views often divide, seasonal displays with religious content represent the essence of the First Amendment as it was intended, an enduring example of bringing people together in some semblance of unity and shared experience for everyone while acknowledging our differences. 

About the author

Herbert G. Grey is a lawyer in private practice in Beaverton, Oregon, with over 25 years of experience concerning First Amendment and religious liberty matters. He was admitted to the Oregon State Bar in 1981 and is also admitted to practice before the U.S. District Court for Oregon, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and the United States Supreme Court. He is a member of the Board of Directors of Christian Legal Society and serves as chairperson of the committee overseeing CLS’ Center for Law & Religious Freedom.

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Arts & Krimes by Krimes Screening

December 15, 2022 @ 7:00 pm 9:00 pm

Join us for a virtual screening of the award-winning documentary Arts & Krimes by Krimes. While locked-up for six years in federal prison, artist Jesse Krimes secretly creates monumental works of art—including an astonishing 40-foot mural made with prison bed sheets, hair gel, and newspaper. He smuggles out each panel piece-by-piece with the help of fellow artists, only seeing the mural in totality upon coming home. As Jesse’s work captures the art world’s attention, he struggles to adjust to life outside, living with the threat that any misstep will trigger a life sentence.

Art & Krimes by Krimes is directed by Alysa Nahmias, produced by Amanda Spain, Benjamin Murray, and Alysa Nahmias, executive produced by Sheila Nevins, Jenifer Westphal, Joe Plummer, Patty Quillin, Hallee Adelman & Ivy Herman, and co-executive produced by Nion McEvoy & Leslie Berriman, Ruth Ann Harnisch, and Sheri Sobrato-Brisson.

Watch the trailer

About Frank Blazquez

Frank Blazquez is a visual artist working in portraiture, documentary film, and mixed-media. With multiple essays published in The Guardian, he is also a writer. Blazquez focuses on counter-narratives across the American Southwest and tropes related to Latinx culture along the US-Mexico border. The creator demonstrates his experiences connected to urgency and rehabilitation. The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery is currently exhibiting Blazquez’s portraiture and his artwork was recently displayed in State of the Art 2020: an exhibit at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

Slanted: How an Asian American Troublemaker Took on the Supreme Court

February 23, 2023 @ 7:00 pm 8:30 pm

Simon Tam and Joe X. Jiang are Asian-American rock stars who notoriously took a First Amendment case to the Supreme Court. Using music, the two will share their journey to Washington DC, but this presentation will also discuss reappropriation and freedom of expression.

About Simon Tam

Simon Tam is an author, musician, activist, and self-proclaimed troublemaker. Best known as the founder and bassist of The Slants, the world’s first and only all-Asian American dance rock band, Simon approaches arts and activism with radical optimism and compassion. In 2017, he won a landmark case at the U.S Supreme Court, unanimously, helping to expand civil liberties for marginalized groups. His work has been highlighted in over 3,000 media features across over 150 countries, including Rolling Stone, TIME, NPR, BBC, and the New York Times.

About Joe X. Jiang

Joe X. Jiang is a filmmaker and musician who has called Portland, OR home for a decade. His movies, which range from intimate documentaries to artistic narratives, have been featured at film and art festivals around the world. His most recent project, The Cutting Shadow, was screened at the 2017 San Diego Asian Film Festival and showcased at multiple festivals in 2018. As a musician, Joe performs in several bands, including The Slants, and is also a producer.


For those looking to disrupt, to make good trouble, or to create social change, remember this important principle: movement creates friction. And, perhaps no civil liberty creates more friction than freedom of speech.

It isn’t easy to present unconventional ideas when the world stubbornly prefers the status quo. Being a catalyst means you will upset someone’s norms. Even someone who shares the same values as you might disagree with your tactics. But here’s a universal law that is shared in the world of science, art, and activism: friction isn’t always a bad thing.

Friction can be a useful force to slow you down so that you exercise more caution. Whether you are slipping on ice or self-conceit, an opposing force can prevent a fall.

Friction can also be used to generate heat and electricity. You can get warmth if you rub your hands together quickly, in the same way that rough opposition can ignite support in important ways.

Friction can also be used to test the strength of something. In the same vein, it is through challenge that the resolve and effectiveness of your ideas will be forged.

Of course, friction isn’t always pleasant. But as a famous African proverb states, “Smooth seas do not make skillful sailors.”

Freedom of expression sometimes creates friction with other people, but it almost certainly guarantees that friction is present when it comes to challenging the government. And it is in the best interest of the government, as it is in the people whom it serves, to do everything possible to protect that right. After all, dissent is patriotic. And when it comes to protecting our liberties, it is important to distinguish the difference between what we need and what we like. We like to hear things that we already agree with—but we need to be able to engage in civil discourse without worrying about backlash from the government. 

It’s often unfortunate that debates around the First Amendment are often framed in the most extreme of circumstances: the speech of political candidates, how people perceive the reach of social media, the display of confederate flags on state property, and so on. However, when political issues cater to and are framed by the outer edges, the deepest impact is felt by the middle. While people may fall across the spectrum, there’s a general consensus that racism and hateful ideas shouldn’t be tolerated, so it’s less of a conflict of values and more of a disagreement on the possible solutions. However, my own story is a cautionary tale against trading in civil liberties in exchange for comfort or convenience. 

Simon Tam in front of the United States Supreme Court. Simon Tam

For years, I was engaged in a deep fight for the right to register the trademark for my Asian American band, The Slants. But therein lies the problem: The Trademark Office believed that our ethnicity provided the context to turn an ordinarily neutral word, “slant,” into a racial slur. Evidently, someone in the government didn’t like our use of the term. Neither our intention to reappropriate it nor our community’s support for it mattered—so much so that they dismissed any legitimate evidence that disagreed with their decision. 

The government’s conviction on this was strong enough to justify suppressing the protected speech of multiple traditionally marginalized communities. They allowed the Trademark Office to use false claims in their legal brief without accountability. They were even allowed to justify the use of my racial and ethnic identity as the primary reason for connecting us with a racial slur. All because the government didn’t like what we had to say. We were creating too much friction.

The stubborn pushback from the Trademark Office wasn’t all that surprising – government offices often have the incentive to maintain the status quo, to reduce friction, so to speak. Eventually, that case landed before the United States Supreme Court, where we won unanimously because of the First Amendment. While the case eventually ended in victory, it took eight years of my life and cost countless resources—years I’ll never get back. No one should ever have to go through something like that – but that’s what happens when the power of the censor rests in the hands of the government. 

We shouldn’t let the fear of the uncomfortable, such as someone using speech you disagree with,  justify the suppression of rights for others—especially when the power to silence comes from the government. We have other options to show our distaste for ideas: to protest, to debate in the marketplace of ideas, and to vote with our dollars in the marketplace of economic exchange. These options are essential for democracy.

True equity isn’t achieved by sweeping government actions that negatively affect some communities more than others. The restriction of speech disproportionately hurts the marginalized and the powerless. There is power in allowing civil discourse to take place, as it is the primary means for overcoming fascism and oppression. 

We should not discourage people from using wit, irony, or reappropriation to disarm the malicious. Unfortunately, the debate on free speech has almost always focused on those who abuse it. We know that the cost of free speech sometimes means having disagreeable speech. But the price that is paid for censorship is carried on the backs of the underprivileged. 

The Slants album cover art. Simon Tam.

An example of this is artistic expression, something that has continuously been understood as deserving the highest forms of protection under the First Amendment. Over the past few decades, prosecutors have been using violent, crime-laden lyrics of amateur rappers as confessions to crimes, threats of violence, evidence of gang affiliation, or revelations of criminal motive- and many judges and juries have gone along with it. The same approach has not been adopted with murder ballads (a popular form of country music), other genres of music, or other forms of artistic expression. It’s a perfect example of Orwell’s satire in play: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” 

We often take civil liberties and our First Amendment freedoms for granted, but they aren’t protected as they should be. A guarantee on paper is only as good as the people willing to ensure that those freedoms are made real. We need persistent awareness and troublemakers willing to fight these battles for other people to ensure our rights are available. 

So as you create movement in your life, ask what you can do with your friction: Do you need to check your ego, heat things up, or test the strength of your resolve? Once you understand the kind of internal opposition that you’re facing, you’ll have better external options for moving forward. And, if you’re creating a movement for your community, ask yourself: are you the friction? How can you use and create more resistance to bring more justice for all?

By Simon Tam

Simon Tam is an author, musician, and activist. He is best known as the founder and bassist of the first all-Asian American rock band, The Slants. He helped expand civil liberties for minorities by winning a unanimous victory at the Supreme Court of the United States for a landmark case, Matal v. Tam, in 2017. He also leads The Slants Foundation, a nonprofit that supports arts and activism projects for underrepresented communities. In 2019, he published his memoir, Slanted: How an Asian American Troublemaker Took on the Supreme Court, which was named “One of the Best Books on the Constitution of All Time” by BookAuthority and won an award for Best Autobiography/Memoir from the Independent Publisher Book Awards.

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10 Tips to a Civil Conversation—and, Actually Change Someone’s Mind

Family get-togethers can be contentious, especially when dinner time turns into a free-for-all debate with your crazy uncle from away. What was once civil conversations can rapidly escalate into heated debates unless you avoid “explosive topics” like current political, social, and religious issues. But our democracy was founded on our ability to have productive debates over pertinent issues.

So, how can you avoid idling safely in a ho-hum conversation filled with pleasantries and open up honest discussions on matters that are important to you with those who disagree? More importantly, how can you feel heard?

Try these ten tips for your next gathering:

1. Prepare Ahead of Time

You may be thinking, “how can I prepare ahead of time if I don’t know when I will have these heated exchanges?” Well, this really means knowing why you believe what you do. If you have a belief that you hold strongly, make sure you have a logical basis for that belief based on data, facts, and sound reasoning. Discover what core principles you have that are unshakable and allow them to inform your views on more specific topics. Finally, research counterarguments to your beliefs and see if you can rationally negate those arguments while standing confident in your own position. 

Do not regurgitate sound bites, studies, headlines, lectures, or other people, without making sure you have researched your point. Do you understand the methodology of the study you’re citing? Did you fact-check the zinger your friend told you? What is the context of the sound bite you want to quote? Did you even read the full article or just the headline? Doing your homework will make you a more convincing and rational interlocutor. People of all stripes respect people who have strong knowledge behind their beliefs and have a firm grounding in their principles.

2. Make Your Conversation Partner Feel Heard

Making your conversation partner feel heard is important to change their mind. Still, it is often easier said than done—especially if they’re frothing at the mouth and furiously ranting at the dinner table. So remember to speak at a normal volume, avoid terms like “debate” or “argument,” and remember that body language is a powerful tool in making your conversation partner feel safe. Sit comfortably, breathe normally, uncross your arms, and do not roll your eyes or make antagonizing gestures. If you look comfortable and genuinely interested in what the other person is saying, no matter how much you may disagree, the tension of the discussion will be lowered. Don’t forget to maintain eye contact!

3. Set Aside Your Passion 

Being passionate about something does not make you a good advocate for it. If your passion and emotions cloud your judgment, communication, and ability to stay calm, then it may be time to start practicing how to channel your passion in a way that makes you a more effective communicator and advocate. By learning to set aside your passion, you will become a more calm and collected conversationalist that prompts better responses from people.

4. Establish Common Ground

Unfortunately, in this day and age, we seem to all inhabit different realities. Therefore, before beginning any conversation on a hot-button political, social, or religious issue, it is crucial to establish common ground. Find facts, realities, and values that you and your partner share and can be used to establish a firm basis to move forward. Establishing common ground is also essential to building a rapport with your partner and showing that you’re not their enemy. Proving you’re not their enemy by framing a dialogue that seeks to build consensus rather than proving them wrong is crucial to changing their mind – or at least beginning the process of changing their mind.

5. Admit When They Make a Good Point

Admitting when your conversation partner makes a good point can be challenging. However, inevitably, in any conversation around a religious, political, or social issue, it is likely  the other person will make a good point (okay, at least a decent point). When it happens, it is crucial to concede. Doing this shows you are a good-faith communicator who seeks to live out your values rather than win an argument. If the point is so good that it makes you reconsider your entire position, write it down, do some research later, and adjust your views or arguments if necessary. If they make a minor point, acknowledge it and return to your larger argument. Refusing to concede any decent point the other side makes will not convince anyone that you are genuinely seeking out what’s best for everyone. You will instead risk coming off as petty and arrogant.

6. Talk At Their Level

Nobody likes to be talked down to, and nobody is an expert on everything. In fact, this may surprise you, but people often have very strong opinions on subjects they know little about. 

If you find yourself in a situation where you are knowledgeable on a topic, but you’re communicating with someone who is not, refrain from using jargon, esoteric language, and academic phraseology. Doing this makes your ideas and arguments more understandable and approachable, rendering you a more effective advocate for your beliefs.

7. Ask Questions

It seems simple, but it is surprising how often people don’t ask any questions. If you are unclear on what someone is saying or trying to advocate for–ask clarifying questions. You cannot change their mind if you do not know what their mind thinks. Questions can also work to cut to the heart of someone’s belief system. Once you understand someone’s core principles, it provides the necessary bedrock to change their mind. This way, you will appeal to their core beliefs rather than merely attacking an argument they’re making derived from those beliefs. Finally, you can use questions to get your conversation partner to prove themselves wrong by making them reflect on their own statements that don’t make sense or contradict other points they’ve made.

8. Let the Other Person Speak…Even If They Talk…A Lot

One of the most effective ways to demonstrate conversing in good faith and listening to your partner is to let them speak, even if they talk–a lot. Like many of these tips, this one takes practice. It requires a conscious effort not to interrupt someone and to sit through something you may disagree with strongly. However, if someone is talking a lot, one thing you can do is take notes of their arguments using your phone or a pen and paper. Your opponent may rant for a while and bring up numerous points, which may be hard to recall once they’re done. By taking notes while they’re talking, you can quickly go down the list and address their individual arguments one at a time. The good news, though, is that if you feel like someone is talking too much and dominating the conversation, everyone in the room is likely noticing that too.

9. Don’t Be Afraid To Disengage

A civil conversation is productive when it ends in consensus. When discussing a topic you and your conversation partner are passionate about, it can be easy to talk in circles. This doesn’t move the conversation in any direction and definitely not toward a consensus. In these situations, it may be necessary to take a step back and return to the discussion later. Disengaging doesn’t mean you are running away or giving up, but rather it gives both you and the other person time to calm down, gather your thoughts, and give sincere consideration to what the other person has said so far. During this reflection, you can notice possible commonalities between both sides and do more research to prove your side and/or evolve your argument. This will allow you to return refreshed and ready to move the conversation forward productively.

10. Understand It May Take More Than One Conversation 

Nobody is going to change their mind overnight, but perhaps at least you can help them respect your point of view. It often takes slow, incremental steps to make any noticeable change in a person’s beliefs. Often people have held the same beliefs for years, if not their entire life. So one conversation is not going to erase a lifetime of opinions. While it might be hard to accept this, you will only truly be able to change a person’s mind once you realize it will likely take numerous civil conversations and a whole lot of work.

This story was produced as part of the Democracy Day journalism collaborative, a nationwide effort to shine a light on the threats and opportunities facing American democracy. Read more at usdemocracyday.org

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Round Table with Kennebec County Politicians

October 19, 2022 @ 6:00 pm 8:00 pm

On October 19 at 6:00 pm, join us for a round table discussion between local politicians! Constituents in Kennebec County will have the opportunity to engage with their local reps on the state and local levels from Augusta, Gardiner, Winthrop, and Hallowell.

* FAM would like to thank the officials and candidates from both political parties who chose to respond to our invitation.

When: Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Where: First Amendment Museum, 184 State Street, Augusta, ME.

Time: 6:00 PM

Free to attend!

About the Participants

Linda Conti
City Councilor, Augusta

Linda Conti is a member of the Maine Bar. She recently retired from a long and rewarding legal career at the Maine Attorney General’s Office. She is a resident of Augusta and currently is serving her eighth year on the Augusta City Council representing the residents of Ward 1.


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Matt Pouliot
State Senator, Augusta

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Charlotte Warren
State Representative, Hallowell

Charlotte Warren is finishing her fourth term in the Maine House of Representatives serving Hallowell, Manchester, and West Gardiner. She has served for six years as the house chair of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. She was recently appointed by the Speaker of the House to serve as the House Chair for Maine’s Commission to Examine the Reestablishment of Parole. Warren previously served on the Judiciary Committee and as the house chair of Maine's Mental Health Working Group. She served on the Hallowell City Council for 12 years, including four as mayor.

Warren is currently running for County Commissioner to represent Kennebec County District 2

Thomas Harnett
State Representative, Gardiner

Thomas Harnett is serving his second term in the Maine State Legislature representing House District #83. He currently is the House Chair of the Judiciary Committee. Prior to his service in state government, he served as the Mayor of the City of Gardiner for six years and as a member of the City Council for one year. Harnett is a past President of the then Maine Bar Foundation and served on the Justice Action Group and the Committee on Volunteer Legal Services.


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Sarah Fuller
Town Council Chair, Winthrop

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William Bridgeo
Candidate for Maine State House District 60

William "Bill" Bridgeo retired in 2021 after serving for twenty-three years as Augusta's city manager. Prior to that he spent six years as city manager of Calais, Maine and eleven years as city manager of Canandaigua, New York. Bill is a longstanding adjunct faculty member at the University of Maine at Augusta and has served on the boards of the Maine Municipal Association, the Kennebec Valley YMCA, the Friends of the Blaine House, and the Maine Development Foundation. He was president of the board of the New York Municipal Management Association and a charter member of the Board of Regents of the International City Management Association University.

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