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Our political divide in this country is deep that on Thanksgiving some people chose not to join family members in order to avoid arguments over politics.Partly this is a result of social media. It is easy to talk only to people with whom you agree and easy to disconnect yourself from those with whom you disagree. Many people no longer know how to hold discussions with people who come from different perspectives.

In an attempt to bridge this divide, the Humboldt Center for Constitutional Rights is launching the HumRights Bar Debate. We are going to demonstrate that civil dialogue between opposing parties is possible by taking the debate forum out of the classroom and away from the podium and put it where it would happen in every day discourse: A bar. Rita’s Margaritas and Mexican Grill in Arcata has graciously offered to host our first debate Nov. 30 at 6 p.m. in what we hope to be an ongoing series. The topic for the first debate will be housing development in Arcata: Should we build more housing or should we protect the character of our community as it is?

Debating on the barstools will be two HSU students, housing advocate Chante’ Catt arguing for more development and seasoned debater Joshua Sales taking the opposing side. We expect the debate to be unscripted and heated, but at the same time civil and respectful. He hope to show that conversations about controversial topics can be both thought-provoking and fun.

At HumRights, we believe in the First Amendment and the idea of free speech. But free speech doesn’t exist where people are afraid to speak freely. Next year will mark the 100th anniversary of the great dissent by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in the case Abrams v. United States. Holmes famously wrote that “the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market … .”

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects speech from limitations imposed by government. It doesn’t protect you from lambastes on social media or diatribes from people in face-to-face encounters. When ideas from individuals are met only with lambastes, diatribes and verbal assaults, people start holding their opinions to themselves and converse only with people with whom they are already in agreement. Democracy cannot flourish in this stifled environment.

The HumRights Bar Debate is the latest project of the Humboldt Center for Constitutional Rights, which is an Arcata-based non-profit geared to educating local citizens about their constitutional rights and encouraging them to exercise those rights. Other projects include an annual Banned Books Read-Out in partnership with the Humboldt State Library; a booth at the North Country Fair where we encourage people to exercise their First Amendment Rights by creating mini “protest” signs; and the creation of a student legal resource center at Humboldt State, now in its first operational year. We hope you join us Nov. 30 at Rita’s. You can find more information at: http://Humrights.org.

Marcy Burstiner is chair of the Humboldt Center for Constitutional Rights. She teaches journalism at Humboldt State University.

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