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Widener University Event Will Explore Civility in Public Discourse

dr. wollman speaking at constitution center

Widener University will partner with the National Constitution Center for a program that explores the intersection of free speech and civil discourse in modern America, Widener President President Dr. Julie E. Wollman announced today.

“The First Amendment: Finding Common Ground in a Polarized World,” will take place Tuesday, Nov. 14 at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. It will include an hour-long panel discussion followed by student-led breakout discussions. The discussions will allow audience members to share their thoughts through an innovative approach that emphasizes understanding, empathy, and advocacy – all through a framework of civility.

The panel discussion, which will happen from 9:15 to 10:15 a.m. in the F.M. Kirby Auditorium, will feature Wollman and Widener University Delaware Law School Dean Rodney Smolla, with National Constitution Center President and CEO Jeffrey Rosen serving as moderator. Wollman will discuss her role as a university president who is intent on honoring all voices and finding common ground, at a time when polarization has affected multiple colleges and universities across the country. She is expected to discuss a recent national study on students’ beliefs about the First Amendment, along with impressions and anecdotes of her personal experiences as a university president. Wollman brings the unique perspective of having served as president of both a public and a private institution. She came to Widener in January 2016 after spending four years as president of Edinboro University, a public institution.

Smolla will explore the free speech implications of the First Amendment, and the differences between what is illegal versus what is distasteful public speech. He is a nationally known First Amendment scholar and lawyer and, in addition to teaching and serving as a law dean, also represents clients in constitutional law cases. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe recently appointed him to the task force charged with evaluating circumstances that led to the violent white supremacist events this August in Charlottesville, a group that is also assessing Virginia’s procedures for responding to events of civil unrest. Smolla presented on the First Amendment at the group’s kickoff meeting in September.

In addition to his duties at the National Constitution Center, Rosen is a professor at George Washington University Law School, and a contributing editor for The Atlantic. He is a highly regarded journalist who was called “the nation’s most widely read and influential legal commentator,” by a Los Angeles Times

reviewer. His work has been published in the New York Times Magazine and The New Yorker and is a frequent guest on NPR. He received the Golden Pen Award from the Legal Writing Institute.

The event aligns with the platform principle “We’re All Widener” which Wollman has highlighted at the university to exemplify Widener’s commitment to respect, mutual understanding and unity. The words symbolize a fabric of the university’s culture, which includes a commitment to treating others’ perspectives and opinions with respect. At Widener, people value the opportunity to share different thoughts and experiences in an effort to find common ground.

The student-led discussions, which will take place from 10:30 to 11 a.m., demonstrate Widener’s innovative approach to living these values. A multi-disciplinary team of Widener faculty is recruiting student volunteers for this event task and training them, through campus workshops, on how to facilitate discussions on difficult topics. The approach follows a model developed by Widener’s Political Engagement Committee, which emphasizes understanding and empathy, and seeks to combat an “us vs. them” or a “win vs. lose” approach to political discussions.

The media is invited and encouraged to attend and cover this event. It will be attended by Widener University faculty, staff, trustees, students and alumni from its main campus in Chester, its Commonwealth Law School in Harrisburg, and its Delaware Law School in Wilmington, Del. After the panel discussion, which will include time for questions, attendees will break up into small groups arranged on the Constitution Center overlook. There, Widener students will facilitate discussions in which all participants will have the opportunity to contribute to the conversation.

Special seating for the media is available. Please contact Widener University Director of Communications to make arrangements, at 610.499.4246 or

Widener University is a private, metropolitan university that connects curricula to social issues through civic engagement. Dynamic teaching, active scholarship, personal attention, leadership development and experiential learning are key components of the Widener experience. A comprehensive doctorate-granting university, Widener comprises seven schools and colleges that offer liberal arts and sciences, professional and pre-professional curricula leading to associate, baccalaureate, master’s and doctoral degrees. Visit the university website,

The National Constitution Center in Philadelphia inspires citizenship as the only place where people across America and around the world can come together to learn about, debate, and celebrate the greatest vision of human freedom in history, the U.S. Constitution. A private, nonprofit organization, the Center serves as America’s leading platform for constitutional education and debate, fulfilling its Congressional charter “to disseminate information about the U.S. Constitution on a nonpartisan basis.” As the Museum of We the People, the Center brings the Constitution to life for visitors of all ages through interactive programs and exhibits. As America’s Town Hall, the Center brings the leading conservative and liberal thought leaders together to debate the Constitution on all media platforms. As a center for Civic Education, the Center delivers the best educational programs and online resources that inspire, excite, and engage citizens about the U.S. Constitution. For more information, call 215-409-6700 or visit