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Bar President's Message

Nicole J. Benjamin, Esq., President, Rhode Island Bar AssociationCivility in the Digital Era

Christopher S. Gontarz, Esq.

President, Rhode Island Bar Association

"Respecting individuals of all walks of life helps create

a sense of belonging and acceptance."


In preparing this initial President’s message, I had the opportunity to review previous Bar President messages and speak with many of my predecessors. In his initial President’s Message, Lauren Jones offered sage advice which is still relevant to this day. Many Presidents use their first message to outline their goals for the year. Lauren observed that our Bar Association is well run, which it is, and is in a good place. “If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it” is the appropriate idiom.

 Be that as it may, I would like to address an issue that I raised in my remarks after I was sworn in as Bar President. Civility appears to be declining in today’s fast-paced and interconnected internet world. The rise of social media and online chat rooms has provided a breeding ground for in­civility, where individuals can hide behind screens and engage in disrespectful behavior without consequences. Cyberbullying, hate speech, and online harassment have become prevalent issues, highlighting the need for a renewed emphasis on civility.

 At a forum on civics education at George Washington University this spring, Supreme Court Justices Amy Coney Barrett and Sonia Sotomayor, two Justices on opposite sides of many court opinions, stressed collegiality, where members of the Supreme Court know how to disagree without being disagreeable. Civility is not just about being polite; it goes beyond etiquette. It involves active listening and, most importantly, empathy. Treating others with kindness and decency, even when we disagree with them, is a laudable goal to strive for. As Justice Barrett noted, “sometimes we do need to apologize because we are human…sometimes you say something that comes across maybe in a way you didn’t intend.” Retired Justice Stephen Breyer, in his recently published book on constitutional interpretation, Reading the Constitution, observed, “Justices who do not always agree on legal results nonetheless go to hockey games or play golf together.”

 One of the benefits of civility is the promotion of inclusivity and diversity. Respecting individuals of all walks of life helps create a sense of belong­ing and acceptance. It allows those who feel marginalized to have a voice and to know that they can be heard. In 1945, Harrison Tweed was elected President of the New York City Bar Association. He was an advocate for openness, equality, civility, informality, and fun. Seven decades later, these principles are still applicable. Tweed subsequently became the chair of the American Law Institute and was instrumental in updating the published Restatements of the Law as well as the Uniform Commercial Code and Model Penal Code. Tweed observed, “I have a high opinion of lawyers. With all their faults, they stack up well against those in every other occupation or profession. They are better to work with or play with or fight with or drink with than most other varieties of mankind.”

 Attorneys hold a position of esteem in society, and I believe it is crucial to promote civility amongst the members of the Bar and Judiciary. It is essential that we start with ourselves. Each one of us can make a difference by consciously prac­ticing kindness, empathy, and respect in our daily interactions. I leave you with the wisdom of Chief Justice Joseph Weisberger: “There is never a good reason to be unkind.”


Barrett NY Times, March 13, 2024
Breyer NY Times, April 15, 2024
Tweed Harrison Tweed Award, American Bar Association
defendants/award/harrison_tweed_award.html). ◊