Civility Now! Corey Lewandowski Ignites Free Speech Debate in Cleveland

In what was surely the most hot-button episode of WCPN's Sound of Ideas in months, City Club of Cleveland CEO Dan Moulthrop appeared alongside local attorney Subodh Chandra* and the ACLU's Elizabeth Bonham Wednesday morning to discuss the City Club's recent announcement that it'll be hosting fired Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski on August 3.

That announcement met with immediate criticism on social media. clutched its pearls and called the response "one of the most volatile in the 105-year history of the citadel of free speech."

The Twitter critics — people who wondered, among other things, what exactly Lewandowski would bring to the City Club (besides, perhaps, notoriety) and who prodded Moulthrop to explain the decision, in light of Lewandowski's thuggish behavior on the campaign trail — were described as "voices of intolerance."

Moulthrop has since orchestrated a kind of publicity tour, which included the Wednesday morning SOI broadcast. First, he penned an op-ed for, celebrating the distinguished history of the City Club and casting the decision to host Lewandowski (at Congressman Jim Renacci's invitation) as a natural extension of the organization's valor in the face of tension and controversy. In a head-scratching formulation, he characterized the criticism of the City Club's decision as "intolerance for dissent."

"If we value free expression and the civil exchange of ideas, then we are called on to embrace and practice these values inclusively, not selectively," wrote Moulthrop. "If we value the places in our community that are designed for ordinary citizens to pose exceptionally challenging questions to elected officials, national leaders and even sitting presidents, then we must engage in dialogue with those who are shaping public discourse, maybe especially when we disagree with their positions."

But that particular position was greeted with skepticism by Subodh Chandra, a City Club member, Wednesday morning. He agreed in principle with Moulthrop's invocation of free speech ideals, but reminded Moulthrop and listeners that the First Amendment protects citizens from government infringement on their free speech rights. It has nothing to do with private entities like the City Club, which makes specific choices about who it invites and what topics it elevates. In Chandra's view, Lewandowski "degraded" the City Club. If he was a valid guest, Chandra asked, who would be off-limits?

Moulthrop said the outer limits were for the City Club's board to determine.

Elizabeth Bonham, too, stressed the need for clarity when framing the debate. She agreed that the current controversy was not a First Amendment Issue, and that when private organizations invoke the First Amendment, it's a misrepresentation. They can certainly advocate free speech, she said. But they aren't bound by the First Amendment at all.

Moulthrop pushed back, suggesting that citizens engage with free speech in a different way than lawyers do, and that it's incumbent upon civil society organizations to work adjacent to the Constitution.

To Chandra, the question was almost immaterial — "a distraction," he said. There was no disputing that the City Club was constitutionally allowed to host Lewandowski. To him, though, Lewandowski was just a shitty, substandard guest — a "third-tier, B-list" failed politician and fired strategist best known for assaults on reporters and protesters. One caller suggested that Chandra's take was "elitist."

But it gets to a fundamental issue that critics of the City Club's decision have voiced: Unless you're the United States government, being "inclusive" in celebrating free speech does not at all mean being exhaustive. Unlike the government, which must permit everything short of violence, critics believe that private entities can (and should) be selective in the speech they choose to give a platform to. In their view, celebrating civil discourse might mean the opposite of what it's being said to mean; it almost certainly means excluding people like Ann Coulter and Alex Jones and holocaust deniers.

In the critics' line of thinking, declining an invite from Jim Renacci to host Lewandowski should not be seen as "suppressing free speech" or "silencing" an opposing viewpoint. The City Club should be perfectly capable of defending a person's right to say something without flying that person to Cleveland and giving them an hour at an esteemed local institution to spew kooky or bigoted hot takes. One can recognize (and cherish) the U.S. government's inability to censor Milo Yiannopoulos, for example, and still believe that Simon & Schuster shouldn't publish his memoir.  

Mercifully, Dan Moulthrop does not appear to believe that the City Club is the United States government. But his exact position is difficult to nail down: He has advanced the idea that the City Club must host Lewandowski — "we must engage in dialogue with those who are shaping public discourse" — but not in spite of his behavior. Moulthrop seems to believe that the former strategist is really a top-hole guest. He has deflected questions about Lewandowski's documented assaults.

To the City Club, Lewandowski is valuable because he was part of something historic (the election of a real estate mogul and reality TV star to the U.S. presidency), and now influences more than 2 million people every day on Fox News. Inviting him — and, crucially, giving attendees the opportunity to ask him tough questions — is in keeping with the City Club's mission.

But to Chandra, Lewandowski is only famous for being infamous. And as a known purveyor of alt-facts and propaganda, even the vaunted City Club Q&A isn't likely to yield an informative or productive dialogue. Chandra said, though, that his primary issue was with the City Club's apparently diminished standards. Now that Lewandowski has been invited, Chandra encouraged people to attend and ask questions.

Meanwhile, eye-rollers on social media are curious about the "dissent" which they're being called intolerant of: What is Corey Lewandowski dissenting from, for example? And by whom are we called upon to practice inclusive free speech values vis-a-vis C-Lew? Well, by Dan Moulthrop and the City Club's recent defenders. In their view, presumably, Lewandowski represents dissent from our own ideas. It's important to welcome him, therefore, as a civil/civic attempt to broaden our minds and find common ground, etc.

Here's the best thread from the Twitter opposition:

*The Chandra Law Firm has represented Scene.

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Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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