Justice Neil Gorsuch speaks at BYU about the importance of civil discourse

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Judge Carolyn B. McHugh of the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit and Justice Neil Gorsuch of the United States Supreme Court speak with students at Brigham Young University during “An Evening With Neil Gorsuch” hosted by the Hatch Center. (Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)

Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch participated in A Discussion on Civility with Carolyn Baldwin McHugh, United States 10th Circuit Judge, at BYU on Sept. 20. Keven J Worthen and President Dallin H. Oaks attended and briefly introduced the speakers. Former Utah Senator Orrin G. Hatch, whose foundation hosted the event, was also in attendance. There were around 800 attendees intent to hear what Gorsuch had to say.

Whether his words were humorous or weighted with concern, Gorsuch discussed the importance of civility. He often elicited laughter from the audience as he told funny and sweet stories — stories that revealed the more human side of civility.

Gorsuch recalled one specific experience when he was on an airplane bound for Washington D.C. During that flight, he was sitting next to a young girl who appeared to be around six years old. Near the beginning of the flight, the plane started to shake from the turbulence.

“She leaned over and said, ‘Can I hold your hand?'” Gorsuch said.

The audience responded to the sweet moment with a chorus of awws.

“And I said, ‘Of course,'” he continued. “We held hands for 20 minutes or so until the turbulence cleared, and then she said, ‘So, do you wanna draw?’”

Judge Carolyn B. McHugh of the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit and Justice Neil Gorsuch of the United States Supreme Court speak with students at Brigham Young University during “An Evening With Neil Gorsuch” hosted by the Hatch Center. (Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)

Laughter echoed through the auditorium as Gorsuch explained how they spent two hours coloring together.

Two weeks after the flight, he received a note in the mail. It was a piece of paper from the little girl.

“It had two stick figures: a man and a little girl in front of an airplane holding hands.”

He paused.

“And to me, that’s America.”

It is that American civility that seems to be lacking, according to polls McHugh referred to later in the discussion.

“You cite the polls that show that nearly 70% of Americans believe the country has a major civility problem, and 60% of those people pay less attention to politics because of the incivility,” she said.

However, according to Gorsuch, much of this is due to the angry headlines published as clickbait and by various forms of social media.

“(The) Supreme Court I know is a model of civility and kindness and mutual respect,” Gorsuch said. “Every time we gather, we shake hands. All of us. No matter how tense the moment.”

“We hug,” McHugh said, talking about the 10th Circuit. This quip prompted even more laughter from the audience.

However, Gorsuch shared what he said was the most disturbing of all statistics:

“Only about a third of all millennials think that it’s important to live in a democracy.”

Since researchers released that statistic, the numbers have continued to drop, he said. He said a lot of people told him the reason they had that mindset is because they view themselves as citizens of the world.

“If it means that I respect dignity and worth of each person and recognize that we’re all equal, wherever they are in the world, I’m all in. But if it means that you don’t think there’s anything special about our constitution … then I’d ask you to think again,” Gorsuch said.

At the end of the event, Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, shared his shock at the statistics and the lack of education among young people in this matter.

“We’re not doing a good enough job of helping our people understand how important it is to recognize that we have liberties and rights and that that is a privilege … we take for granted,” he said. “I don’t know how we solve that, but it is something that is an issue.”

Ryan Wallentine, a third-year law student at BYU, shared his concern about the application of the discussion on civility and how people could receive it.

“I just kind of worry about how it’s implemented a lot of the times because it’s all civility, which I think is good, but I think people tend to just be like, ‘Yeah, I’m civil, but everyone else isn’t,’ so I hope people can get past that mindset.”

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