More than a week after the presidential election, our nation remains deeply divided over how government should address many pressing issues, including a worsening public health crisis, the continuing reality of racism and injustice in our country, and the growing global impact of climate change. Some of these debates arise when government officials use power to address what they see as threats to public health or safety, while others view their actions as encroaching on individual rights and freedoms.
In light of current and past events, our theme for the 2021 W&J Symposium on Democracy is,”Democracy in Times of Crisis: When Freedom and Security Collide.” Mark your calendars for Wednesday, February 17th, when students, faculty and staff will have a day free of classes to participate in an exciting program featuring presentations and breakout discussions in both virtual and in-person formats. In addition, the committee is working with faculty and staff to support additional opportunities to explore relevant topics throughout the week of Presidents Day (when classes will be held).
Freedom is seldom without limits, even in the most democratic societies. Yet in times of fear or insecurity, authorities often require citizens to sacrifice even more rights and freedoms. Over the last year in the United States, many state and local governments imposed stay-at-home orders and masking requirements in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. During the same period, some public officials used curfews, tear gas and other forceful methods to suppress large protests against racial injustice, insisting this was necessary to prevent violence and looting. There have been many other cases throughout the nation’s history: decades of racial profiling by law enforcement agencies; increased surveillance of citizens after the events of September 11, 2001; incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II; Congressional interrogation of alleged members of the Communist Party in the early Cold War years; federal legislation suspending the writ of ‘habeas corpus’ during the Civil War; to name but a few examples. In such cases, restrictions on freedoms are seen by some as necessary to ensure safety, but by others as unjustified and/or unconstitutional infringements on individual rights.
In the international arena as well, leaders of some democratic nations have cited the coronavirus pandemic as a justification to seize greater control – canceling elections, silencing the press, or invoking emergency powers. The Wall Street Journal wrote that the pandemic is “being used as an excuse to weaken democratic institutions and oversight – an authoritarian slide that could endure once the current health emergency subsides.” An Associated Press article about several European countries was headlined, “Dismantling Democracy? Virus Used as Excuse to Quell Dissent.”
The 2021 W&J Symposium on Democracy will explore past and current events in the U.S. and abroad that give rise to pressing questions: When, if ever, should democratic societies allow individual rights and freedoms to be limited in the interest of security? Who should have the power to decide? Are minority and economically disadvantaged groups at greater risk in either case? How much power should governments have to suspend rights and freedoms in times of fear?
We will invite formal proposals for breakout sessions and look forward to the active participation of our faculty and students across academic disciplines, as this is always a key to the success of the Symposium. More details on this process will be announced in the near future.
We are fortunate during these challenging times that generous funding for the Symposium on Democracy is again provided by the Guy Woodward, Jr. Foundation.
The Symposium on Democracy Committee
Eva Chatterjee-Sutton; Melissa Cook; Jeff Frick; Halie Hess; Cynthia Hogan; Erin Jones; David Kieran; Kelly Kimberland; John Knapp; Carolyn Kyler; Kris LaGreca; Nick Maradin; Samantha Martin; Robert Muth; Dana Poole; Yafeu Rougier; Rebecca Valencia; Maureen Valentine; Kristen Carothers