In a speech to students and faculty at the University Law School yesterday, Cass Sunstein, a leading constitutional law expert and advisor to President-elect Barack Obama, warned that the Internet might not be as great for democracy as it’s cracked up to be.

CLIF REEDER/Daily
Cass Sunstein speaks at the Eighteenth Annual University of Michigan Senate’s Davis, Markert, Nickerson Lecture on Academic and Intellectual Freedom on December 4, 2008.

Sunstein’s speech — titled “My University.com, My Government.com: Is the Internet Really a Blessing for Democracy?” — was the 18th annual Davis, Markert, Nickerson Lecture on Academic and Intellectual Freedom.

In the lecture, Sunstein stressed the importance of avoiding the dichotomization of ideas, arguing that the Internet can lead people to become too insulated from the variety of beliefs and opinions needed for rational political discourse. Diversity of thought is critical to the success of democracy, he said, citing a study he conducted in which liberals and conservatives were separated into groups and told to discuss issues including climate change, affirmative action and gay marriage.

Over the course of the study, the groups became increasingly radicalized in their respective views on the issues.

“Social pressures can create polarization machines,” Sunstein said.“It was as if the groups occupied two different political universes.”

Through his research, Sunstein has developed a theory that if people are only exposed to news and information targeted at their preexisting interests and political beliefs, society will become polarized along ideological lines.

Sunstein said his theory, “The Daily Me,” has potentially harmful effects for dissent and open political discourse because it promotes the radicalization of viewpoints on both ends of the political spectrum.

The explosion of Internet news outlets like the Huffington Post and highly personalized blogs, have reduced what Sunstein called the “architecture of serendipity,” or the unexpected exposure to a person, topic or viewpoint.

Sunstein said the “architecture of serendipity” formed in the 20th century when newspapers, radio and television news outlets presented a broad range of issues and viewpoints to their audiences.

He said public protests and demonstrations are now one of the few ways in which Americans are exposed to a diversity of opinions.

“So long as the streets and parks are open, we have a duty to be exposed to people who disagree with us,” Sunstein said.

Terrorism, according to Sunstein, is a prime example of sociopolitical polarization gone horribly awry. He refuted the widely held views that terrorism is driven by poverty or a lack of education, instead arguing that “what terrorism seems to be fueled by is polarization.”

Offering hope for the future of national and international political discourse, Sunstein said the burden of protecting and fostering the open exchange of ideas falls on universities. He called for the creation of deliberative forums to promote moderation and rationality in political, social and moral discourse.

“It is very important for institutions (of higher learning) to protect against censorship and the persecution of dissidents,” he said.

Hosted annually by academics, lawyers and journalists since 1991, Sunstein’s talk was latest installment in a lecture series focused issues of academic and intellectual freedom. Most recently, Sunstein has been named as a potential nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court.

In his introduction, Law School Dean Evan Caminker called Sunstein the “leading legal scholar of our generation.” A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, Sunstein has been a professor at the University of Chicago and Harvard University Law Schools. He has also written more than 15 books and countless articles for newspapers and magazines around the country.

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