Symposium On Democracy

Led by expert speakers, faculty and students, the Symposium on Democracy is held each year on Presidents Day and examines issues and challenges inherent in sustaining democratic societies and institutions. Founded in the last days of the American Revolutionary War, Washington & Jefferson College has been committed to fostering democracy and responsible citizenship for well over two centuries.

"Democracy in Times of Fear: When Freedom and Security Collide"
February 17, 2021

Freedom is seldom without limits, even in the most democratic societies. Yet in times of fear or insecurity, authorities often require citizens to sacrifice even more rights and freedoms. Over the last year in the United States, many state and local governments imposed stay-at-home orders and masking requirements in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. During the same period, some public officials used curfews, tear gas and other forceful methods to suppress large protests against racial injustice, insisting this was necessary to prevent violence and looting. There have been many other cases throughout the nation’s history: decades of racial profiling by law enforcement agencies; increased surveillance of citizens after the events of September 11, 2001; incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II; Congressional interrogation of alleged members of the Communist Party in the early Cold War years; federal legislation suspending the writ of ‘habeas corpus’ during the Civil War; to name but a few examples. In such cases, restrictions on freedoms are seen by some as necessary to ensure safety, but by others as unjustified and/or unconstitutional infringements on individual rights.

In the international arena as well, leaders of some democratic nations have cited the coronavirus pandemic as a justification to seize greater control – canceling elections, silencing the press, or invoking emergency powers. The Wall Street Journal wrote that the pandemic is “being used as an excuse to weaken democratic institutions and oversight – an authoritarian slide that could endure once the current health emergency subsides.” An Associated Press article about several European countries was headlined, “Dismantling Democracy? Virus Used as Excuse to Quell Dissent.”

The 2021 W&J Symposium on Democracy will explore past and current events in the U.S. and abroad that give rise to pressing questions: When, if ever, should democratic societies allow individual rights and freedoms to be limited in the interest of security? Who should have the power to decide? Are minority and economically disadvantaged groups at greater risk in either case? How much power should governments have to suspend rights and freedoms in times of fear?

*Additional information and schedules to follow.