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National Institute for Civil Discourse

Launched in February 2011, the National Institute for Civil Discourse (NICD) is a national, nonpartisan center for debate, research, education and policy generation regarding civic engagement and civility in public discourse consistent with First Amendment principles. Based at the University of Arizona, NICD offers an institutional structure to support research and policy generation and a set of innovative programs advocating for civility in public discourse, while encouraging vigorous public debate, civic engagement, and civic leadership. Learn more: http://nicd.arizona.edu/

Q&A about the National Institute for Civil Discourse

1. Why a national institute?
The increasingly strident tenor of the nation’s public discourse affects our democracy, and our ability to work together as a nation to address the major challenges that America must confront.

2. Why now?
In a world of instant communication, it is more important now than at any other time in our history that we find avenues to speak across political divides and party lines, and communicate in ways that will foster dialog, conversation and legitimate debate.

3. Why Tucson? Why the University of Arizona?
Tucson was where the tragedy struck that sparked a new national conversation. The University is the state’s Land Grant University, and one of the premier research institutions in the world where many of its faculty already conduct research relevant to public discourse, civic engagement and civic leadership.

4. Are you blaming heated rhetoric for the shootings?
Absolutely not. But the shootings created a space for people to focus on civility, and the Institute is building on that positive outcome of a tragic event.

5. What is its purpose?
The purpose of the National Institute for Civil Discourse is to promote civic engagement and robust political debate by fostering ties between people of all political persuasions so that they may vigorously debate the choices that face our country in a turbulent and dangerous world.

6. What could the institute achieve?
For a new national conversation to begin, there have to be institutions to foster it. The National Institute for Civil Discourse will become a central part of an archipelago of collaborating organizations creating the space for tough-minded civil discourse between people with conflicting values and ideas.

7. What will the NCID do?
The NICD will convene briefings and conferences with some of America’s most accomplished leaders from across the political spectrum to develop an agenda for organizing and promoting civil discourse. It will develop programs, curricula, and research committed to the vigorous exercise of First Amendment freedoms in a way that respects both the ideas of others, and those who hold them.

8. How is the institute unique?
The NICD is a counterweight to the dominant business and media model of our age which attracts an audience by catering to existing fears and beliefs, rather than challenging them. While this is a very good way to stir people up around issues they are passionate about and against people perceived as thinking differently, it is a terrible way to govern a great nation which requires discourse, debate and compromise.

9. To What End?
Politics is about effective governing, not just winning and losing. A great democracy depends on a respect for difference and willingness to compromise, most importantly for the good of generations of Americans to come. The oath that Athenian citizens took required them to leave the city “not worse, but better” than they found it. We believe this as well.

Purpose of the National Institute for Civil Discourse

On January 8, 2011 in Tucson, Arizona, a young man turned a gun on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, severely injuring Giffords, and 13 others around her, and killing six people – including Chief Judge John M. Roll and Christina-Taylor Green, a nine-year-old girl who had come to an event out of her interest in electoral politics. Although the tragedy was not, linked in any way to contemporary public discourse, the tragedy sparked a national conversation about civic engagement and civility. Speaking at a nationally televised event in Tucson in support of the survivors and in honor of the deceased, President Barack Obama called upon the nation to become what the slain young girl had imagined America to be. The President said, “… (A)t a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized – at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do – it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.” This Institute is a response to that call.

Democracy can only thrive when citizens can and do exercise their freedom of speech, but the marketplace of ideas works best when citizens and their representatives engage with others in debate and deliberation over their different, and often opposing points of view. It is through such constructive engagement that new ideas and innovative policy solutions emerge. Civil discourse, the respectful exchange of information, values, interests, and positions, is a necessary predicate for creative problem solving and democratic governance. Benjamin Franklin captured this spirit at the end of the Constitutional Convention in the summer of 1787 when he let it be known that he did not approve of every part of the Constitution. However, he also understood that time and more information might cause him to change his mind. He said, “For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise.”

Civil discourse is based on respect for the multiplicity of values and perspectives within our democratic society and recognizes the limitations of human knowledge, and the need for humility in proposing political solutions. The process of publicly and civilly defending our ideas before others, and respecting others’ right to do likewise, improves the chances that diverse ideas inform our own opinions, and increases the likelihood that decisions are fully vetted. This is a time-honored way of moving American democracy forward and of forging a more perfect union.

Objectives and Activities


  1. To explore, through research and analysis, the impact of vitriolic rhetoric on contemporary public debate and policy.
  2. To develop resources and programs to educate the public at large and students in particular about the importance of robust public discourse that respects the principles of freedom of expression while also respecting boundaries of civility and decency.
  3. To provide national leadership regarding the importance of engaging opposing points of view, and to be a national voice that celebrates examples of civil discourse.
  4. To encourage and engage young people to enter public service and pursue leadership positions, and train them in the principles of civil discourse, civic engagement, and civic leadership.
  5. To advance the findings of the Institute to other areas of public life, including homes, workplaces, places of worship, classrooms, and in public gatherings using both print and electronic means.

Location of the Institute

The National Institute for Civil Discourse is located in the School of Government and Public Policy at the University of Arizona with a presence in Washington, DC. The Institute is an interdisciplinary unit that collaborates with the University’s Rehnquist Center on the Constitutional Structures of Government and with other relevant units throughout the University.


  1. Promotes a national conversation bringing key public officials and other prominent public figures to the table to discuss the ethics of civil discourse.
  2. Conducts and publicizes research on civic engagement, civility, and public discourse.
  3. Issues annual national awards for models of civil public discourse.
  4. Organizes annual conferences and workshops, in Tucson, Washington DC, and across the nation.
  5. Convenes major policy discussions with elected officials, policy makers, and advocates on topics that tend to generate intense opposing positions. These discussions will model civil discourse at its best, allowing structured dialogue and deliberation that ensures all points of view are expressed and heard, and while not expecting people to change their values or perspectives, inspires the search for more informed and creative policy-making.
  6. Develops instructional modules for schools and new federal, state, and local officials, with the aim of creating a civil discourse training program.
  7. Engages in outreach to other centers, institutes, and foundations working on related issues both within Arizona and nationally.
  8. Develops a visiting scholars program for researchers, practitioners, and public officials to promote the exchange of ideas and experience.
  9. Develops an internship program for students to engage in research on civility with public officials.
  10. Develops interdisciplinary, campus-based programs that promote civil discourse, civic engagement, and a sense of civic leadership.

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