Federal appeals judge urges UHLC students to avoid “shut up” style of debate 

Judge Kent Jordan of the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals argues for a more rational form of debate in U.S. politics in a talk at the University of Houston Law Center

Judge Kent Jordan of the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals argues for a more rational form of debate in U.S. politics in a talk at the University of Houston Law Center

May 8, 2015 - Americans on all sides of the political spectrum need to work toward more reasoned discourse that avoids the coarseness and “political correctness” that tends to shut down debate, a federal circuit court judge told students recently at the University of Houston Law Center.

Judge Kent Jordan, who serves on the Philadelphia- based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, said a certain rough-and-tumble brand of debate has always been part of the American political culture, a result of the “constant tension” between majority rule and minority rights, as well as disagreements over individual rights and the scope of government power.

“It’s a natural, inherent tension in the system,” he said.

But Jordan said that in recent decades, particularly with the rise of electronic media, a courser and more “shut-up style of dialogue” has arisen.

Jordan’s talk, called “Come Now and Let Us Reason Together:  A Call for Rational Debate,” was hosted April 14 by the UHLC chapter of The Federalist Society.

Jordan, who was appointed to the Third Circuit by President George W. Bush, said no party or political persuasion has “a lock” on this more demeaning form of discourse, pointing to some of the coarser comments of radio personality Rush Limbaugh.

But, he said, members of “the Left” have mastered a particularly virulent form of the style that uses so-called “political correctness,” in which political opponents are reflexively accused of things like racism, as a means of controlling the terms of the debate.

Jordan quoted a writer for New York magazine, which he noted was not a particularly right-leaning publication, that “Political correctness makes debate irrelevant and frequently impossible.”

He said this form of debate has found its way into his own courtroom, citing a case involving religious freedom rights and the provision of insurance coverage for contraceptives -- one of the cases that was ultimately included in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2014 Burwell v. Hobby Lobby decision. In a lengthy dissent, Jordan took to task the counsel for the U.S. government for engaging in the style during oral argument when he interrupted Jordan and said he was using a “theological” rather than a “medical” term in referring to contraceptives.

Jordan advocated that people on all sides of such contentious issues return to a more civilized, rational form of debate. As an example of a place that is doing just that, he pointed to the Philadelphia-based National Constitution Center, a nonpartisan educational institution that hosts debates by legal scholars over controversial issues like the Hobby Lobby decision.

“We need not be fearful to discuss hard questions in plain terms. I hope you will not be,” Jordan told the students. “Sincere and thoughtful debate can persuade, and when it does persuade it can enhance both commitment to earlier positions, and the capacity to articulate those positions.”

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