Broken Turtle Blog

Broken Turtle Blog

Monday, October 22, 2012

Candidate Debates at UD: A Lesson in Human Rights

Protester Ejected from UD Debate
Innocence and Optimism

Tuesday morning October 16 began with a lesson on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, what President Ronald Reagan called “a standard by which any humble person on Earth can stand in judgment of any government on Earth." Before the day was out, the lesson would be undermined by the University of Delaware-sponsored electoral debates.

I had asked my Freshman English class to select some favorite passages in the Declaration and tell why they spoke to them. I circled the room to see their work and to engage those innocent, optimistic youths in some dialogue. Among the most popular was Article 19:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Next in line was Article 21, paragraph 1:

Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.

I made some remarks that the debates to take place in the University’s Mitchel Hall that night were excluding Green, Libertarian, and Independent Party candidates and perhaps abridging their freedom of expression and participation in government. At the same time, I noted that rights were subject to limitation when necessary, as Article 29 prescribes, to secure “due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, [and] public order.”

A Train Wreck

What happened that night was a train wreck of rights in conflict, brought on by the University’s decision to limit the public discourse to those with the power of money. UD exacerbated the clash by overreacting to a Green Party and Occupy Delaware “mic check,” a brief, call-and-response demur endured with infinitely more patience at New Castle County sheriff’s sales, national rallies, and even at a speech by President Obama last November.

The stage was set for the clash by the University of Delaware Center for Political Communication (DPC), which organized the debates. Headed by Ralph Begleiter, a former correspondent for CNN, the CPC demanded that candidates meet standards set by the Pew Debate Advisory Standards Project, which suggests that forums either require candidates to raise high sums of money or have the parties go to great expense on polls to prove the popularity of their candidates. Other than the two dominant party candidates, only unaffiliated Alex Pires, a wealthy businessman, was able to buy his way into the debate. Several other debates in Delaware, including those at Widener Law School and the Jewish Federation of Delaware (after some urging), welcomed all ballot-qualified candidates, but the publicly-funded UD imposed its own form of political correctness. As I argued in my Broken Turtle Column August 10, “[f]or UD to take part in this pseudo-debate is a violation of its educational mission.” Let us note that Sen. Tom Carper and Congressman John Carney both sit on the Advisory Committee of the Center for Political Communication that protected them from alternative views.

The Palm of Information Control
When Green Party candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives Bernie August rose before the debate began to protest his exclusion with a mic check and invite the audience to an alternative debate outside of Mitchell Hall, the University let lose all the accoutrements of information control: Plainclothes cops descended on August and his supporters. Unidentified men in suits head-locked protestors out the doors. An usher in the Mitchell Hall lobby threw her hand over the camera snapping shots of someone in a suit and a uniformed UD cop ejecting a man they later charged with resisting arrest. UDaily, the University’s on-line newsletter, only mentions UD Police and says nothing about plainclothes private security, who, if they were involved, take the university into dangerous legal ground. While August says the police who held him at the Newark Police station were polite and professional, police were very slow to tell friends and family where he and the other arrestee were being held and waited until almost 1 a.m. to release them, pending trial.

UD could of course argue that the rights of the candidates to speak and of the audience to hear were disrupted by the boisterous mic check, even though the University had used its less boisterous power to silence views the audience would surely have welcomed. These views include what the Greens say about environmental issues and national single-payer health care and what the Libertarians say about the war on drugs and the anti-teacher provisions of Race to the Top. Indeed, writing in The Delaware Libertarian blog, Steve Newton reports that the same Pew Study that recommended the restrictive guidelines also noted that 53 percent of voters wanted third-party candidates included in debates. Had the Center for Political Communication given the citizens the debate they wanted, maybe they would have filled the considerable number of empty seats at Mitchel Hall and avoided a bumbling demonstration of arbitrary power.

When President Obama was similarly mic checked by Occupy Wall Street on November 22 of last year, he responded, “"I'm going to be talking about a whole range of things today, and I appreciate you guys making your point, let me go ahead and make mine, all right? And I'll listen to you, you listen to me."  The University can redeem itself by dropping all charges against the two arrestees. UDaily reported only that the protesters were removed, apparently finding the arrests too embarrassing to mention. Or they can double down on this disgrace and throw their weight around, the way they did when they intimidated investors from bidding on the old Chrysler site by threatening to seize it through eminent domain, something I learned from Left Behind, a film produced by Ralph Begleiter and his students.

In an academic environment, taboos must be broken and assumptions subjected to challenge. This debate bolstered received wisdom, gave the entrenched a free pass, and suppressed the predictable reaction.

Competing Honors and Competing Rights: Drop the Charges

Recently Ralph Begleiter was honored by Common Cause of Delaware for his role in breaking the taboo against exposing the flag-draped coffins of American war dead. Almost simultaneously, Occupy Delaware was honored by Delaware Pacem in Terris as “Peacemakers Among Us” for breaking the two-party taboo against exposing the plutocratic one percent. I hope Ralph Begleiter will join me in urging the University of Delaware to drop all charges against those arrested and disclose if private security agents were involved.
My students demonstrate a fairly broad spectrum of views and I try to let them sort it out themselves as they contemplate competing rights. However, everything we do at the university is part of the learning environment. What will students take away concerning freedom of expression, participation in government, and Human Rights in general from this truncated debate?

PS: The Complete Mic Check

I am Bernie August and I am the Green Party candidate for the US House of Representatives. My voice, and the people's voices that I hope to represent, are being silenced with this debate. Because I am not a member of one of the entrenched parties, because I am not independently wealthy, and because I refuse to take corporate donations, I am not allowed to participate, even though I am a ballot qualified candidate.

As a result, I am protesting this partisan and farcical mockery of a debate and ask that you join me at THE REAL DEBATE to be held outside this hall and right after this message, where I and other 3rd party candidates will answer your questions. I urge you ALL, audience members and candidates on the stage, to join me so that we can have a truly free and open debate. All of our voices matter.


  1. Thanks for posting the entire mic check. Some of it was lost in the hubbub.

  2. Your welcome. Feel free to link to this article.

  3. Well done Phillip. Here's the latest in the old Delaware saga: The Medical Society of Delaware is sponsoring debates tonight which are excluding 3rd party candidates. It is a private group, but everyone should know that a large, state doctor's lobbying organization has no interest in fairly presenting all ballot qualified candidates to their organization and friends.

  4. thank you, Bernie & Phillip.
    As I stood with other participants at Sally Mulberrystien's honoring where "Occupy Delaware" received Pacem in Terris's Peace Maker Among us Award, I began to envision the Green Party receiving that award for bringing to light the undemocratic process some now consider "normal" and for promoting change in our voting process. I believe we will win over many organizations who, because of their very public direct actions. The sacrifices and investments of a few, will soon benefit the whole far into the future. Keep the posts coming and please, let us know if there are any videos clips we can forward to others. We all need good news, and this will soon turn into good news!
    Soon, ~ RuthAnn

  5. Thanks RuthAnn,
    I think we are close to a break through in getting alternative views out to the general population. See's expanded debate with Jill Stein and Rockh Anderson. What a different take on nuclear Iran or anywhere and Israeli Settlements in Palestine.

  6. League of Women Voters of Kent County
    545 Carol Street, Dover, DE 19904

    For Immediate Release Contact: Jill Fuchs
    October 17, 2012 Candidates Night Committee
    League of Women Voters of K
    ent County (302) 697-8277

    League of Women Voters Candidates Night Forum
    Wednesday, October 24, 2012; 7:00 - 9:00 p.m.
    Longwood Auditorium, Bank of America Building,
    Delaware State University, Dover

    The public is invited to attend a Candidates Night forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Kent County and the American Association of University Women (AAUW), Dover Chapter. The Candidates Night will be held on Wednesday, October 24, 2012, from 7:00 - 9:00 p.m. in the Longwood Auditorium, Bank of America Building, Delaware State University, Dover. Candidates for the offices of United States Senator, United States Representative, Governor, Lt. Governor, Insurance Commissioner and State Senate, Districts 14-18 have been invited to participate.

    Members of the audience will be given index cards at the entry door and throughout the program on which to pose questions to the candidates. The League of Women Voters of Kent County will moderate and staff the debate. Candidates must have qualified to appear on the State of Delaware election ballot in order to participate in this forum. In keeping with federal regulations governing non-partisan election debates, at least two candidates for an office must be present in order for a candidate for that office to participate in the formal program.

    This forum affords voters a unique opportunity to voice their concerns related to the upcoming elections and to learn where the candidates stand on salient issues. The program is free and open to the public. The League of Women Voters and AAUW encourage grassroots citizen participation in this event as a means to produce an educated electorate, fulfilling the principle enunciated by Thomas Jefferson that, "An informed citizenry is at the heart of a dynamic democracy."

  7. Follow up - did the UD end up dropping the charges - I hope?