“Hot Speech” – by Susan J. Kohlmann, President

Susan J. KohlmannEven in the most difficult times, we need to be able to speak to one another without provocation, intimidation, hate or worse. When is speech too hot to handle? That’s the question the New York City Bar Association will tackle in an all-day, in-person program on March 28.

Over the past few months, if you’ve ventured into conversations about Israel and Gaza with friends and family, let alone with colleagues or professional acquaintances, you know how difficult it can be. And, if you’ve been even a casual consumer of the news during that time, you know how charged speech has become. People have lost jobs, been “canceled,” threatened with violence and even assaulted for expressing their opinion.

Where does the law come in, whether under First Amendment principles, or otherwise? Where should it come in, on campuses and in the workplace? What is the relation between free speech and academic freedom, and between free speech and the idea of “bringing one’s whole self to work”? What are the rights to free speech in those settings? And when, if ever, can reasonable limits be placed on speech in order to align with organizational values and provide inclusive and safe spaces?

At a time when it seems there is no shortage of opinions, but civil discourse is in short supply, how can university administrations and executive management create environments for the free exchange of ideas while ensuring safety and civility? For constructive purposes and to drive change, how we speak to one another is as important as what we say.

Last fall, the Chairs of our relevant committees met to begin thinking and talking through these questions, and to explore how the City Bar could make a helpful contribution. The meeting was quite intentionally scheduled in-person, as is the upcoming program, as the consensus was that these matters are not ideally dealt with remotely.

In the New Year, I asked Marcy Kahn, Chair of the Rule of Law Task Force, and Mary Lu Bilek, Co-Chair of the Council on the Profession, to put together, with the help of the group we had assembled, this program. I am so grateful for the contributions of the sponsoring committees, and their help in identifying and securing the participation of the remarkable group of speakers who will join us for this program.

I don’t expect we will answer all the questions posed above on March 28. But I do know that these questions aren’t going away, whether the topic is Israel-Gaza, DEI policies, abortion, immigration or whatever new hot topic tomorrow brings. But with the help of the participants’ expertise, and the engaged interest of the attendees, I’m confident we will get better at handling hot speech. We must.

Register here.