Op-Ed Writing Tips
March 8, 2013
One of the best ways to get fellow students involved in your effort to change your campus speech codes is to write op-eds and letters-to-the-editor in your campus paper. Using this method, you can reach students, staff, faculty, parents and even the outside community with one article. While not all students read the campus papers, the ones that do are likely to be among the most involved on campus. Since engaged students are your target audience anyway, an op-ed can often be an effective tool. The other benefit is that alumni often stay in touch with their alma mater through the student newspaper, so an article on your school's polices might be their only way of finding out that something is amiss at your school. Also, writing a short piece for your campus newspaper shows that you are exercising your freedom of speech—all while allowing you to explain a particular speech code or issue on your campus.
Most campuses have at least one campus newspaper, typically with both a print and online edition. Also check out alternative campus publications that might be interested in publishing your article.
Things to keep in mind while writing your article:
Know your paper - it is important that you understand the style and typical content of the paper when writing your op-ed. Get to know your paper's guidelines, word limits and editorial preferences. Also, check the archives to see if other articles have been written on your topic and what views were taken -- and make sure to reference them in your op-ed.
Be concise - when in doubt, write less. This cannot be stressed enough -- students are so busy with homework, sports, jobs and extracurricular activities that they often do not have time for a lengthy explanation of why a particular college policy is worth fighting. Make your letter brief and to the point and it will have a much better chance of being read.
Understand the policy - make sure that you really understand why the free speech zone or harassment policy you are referencing is problematic. You don't want to misstate the case against the policy; you will look uninformed and it will hurt your effort to change the policy. Don't hesitate to ask FIRE for help identifying which policies are most problematic at your school and explaining why.
Use examples - to highlight a particularly egregious problem on your campus, it is often helpful to show examples of how similar cases have gone awry at other campuses. Satire is a useful tool. By making light of the policies, you can help people realize how ridiculously dangerous these policies really are to free speech. Craft an "imagine if ..." narrative for your readers to explain how the policy could go wrong. If your school's policy bans "offensive or insulting jokes," then you could point out that many common jokes would be outlawed, and explain that while a sharply worded "yo mamma" joke might be offensive, that does not mean students should be banned from telling them. Or in the case of a restrictive "free speech zone" which requires 48 hours notice before any protest can be held, you could use the example of September 11th. Imagine, you might write, that students wanted to hold a campus memorial or rally on that day. Under a prior approval policy with no exceptions for spontaneous speech, such an act would have been effectively impossible. If you need help coming up with examples, contact FIRE and we may be able to provide a few from previous FIRE cases.
Citations - your article is not a research paper, but you should still include one or two citations that back up your argument. If you use statistics for examples, it is especially important to cite your source for credibility. You can also direct readers to the FIRE website (www.thefire.org) and explain how they can find your school's Spotlight page and past cases.
Make it personal - the more you can make the issue hit home for the reader, the better. You don't want to spend time crafting this letter and have students brush it off or not understand how the issue impacts them. Make sure you explain how terrible it would be to be investigated under an unconstitutional sexual harassment code for protected speech or have no way to demonstrate for a cause that means a lot to them because of a restrictive free speech zone.
Inspire action - considering how busy most students are, it is important not to leave them without an outlet once they are convinced by your excellent op-ed arguments! Be sure to close your letter with some ideas on what they can do to help out. Depending on the type of people on your campus (and you know your classmates best) you can suggest things like writing letters to the college president or board of trustees, encourage them to join a Facebook group or email list-serv to discuss the issue in more depth, or invite them to a protest you are holding.
Also, your community paper may be interested in stories about your campus. That said, depending on the community and the size of the paper, it may be more difficult to get local papers to publish your letter. Even if you cannot get your letter to the editor published, however, you can always inform the local media of any events you are hosting on campus, such as a lecture or a protest, with a press release. (Visit our speaker's page to learn more about hosting a FIRE speaker on your campus.)Op-Ed Examples