FIRE's CFN Conference a Huge Success
July 20, 2010
by Luke Sheahan
This weekend, FIRE wrapped up its Third Annual Campus Freedom Network Conference. About fifty students from across the country congregated at Bryn Mawr College to hear from FIRE's staff and some of the leading advocates of free speech on campus. Dozens of students and community members tuned in on the CFN website and on the CFN's Ustream channel. Students and staff engaged in vigorous discussion not only at the conference, but also on Twitter.
After meeting each other and the staff, students were treated to University of Massachusetts at Amherst professor and FIRE Board of Directors member Daphne Patai's opening speech, including a satire on utopian motivations which drew on her personal experience and her academic study of dystopian literature. She thus provided serious insight into how many administrators may view the world when writing speech codes.
On Friday morning, FIRE Board of Directors Chairman Harvey Silverglate gave a scintillating speech on the importance of FIRE's Campus Freedom Network members. Harvey speculated that when starting FIRE with University of Pennsylvania professor Alan Charles Kors, he thought that it would take about a decade to set the academy straight on speech codes. In hindsight, he reflected, he was naive about the depth of universities' interest in censorship, even if they are less strong bastions of censorship than they were ten years ago. That is why the CFN is so important. Students have a unique position on campus that allows them to influence the administration in ways that others simply cannot. Harvey encouraged students to make the most of their position and to work to change the campus culture of censorship.
FIRE President Greg Lukianoff followed Harvey to discuss the phenomenon of "Unlearning Liberty," whereby students learn from unconstitutional speech codes that it is not only effective, but a moral imperative, to censor ideas they disagree with. Greg related this phenomenon to the decline in political discourse and showed how it threatens our democracy. Greg expressed similar ideas in his chapter "Students Against Liberty?" for the book New Threats to Freedom.
Then Greg moderated a distinguished panel on "The Philosophical and Practical Underpinnings of Academic Liberty." Adam Kissel, Director of FIRE's Individual Rights Defense Program, discussed the utilitarian case for free speech, drawing from John Stuart Mill, and discussed Plato's account of Socrates' habit of encouraging people to own up to how little they really know so that they become willing to really listen to opposing ideas. Greg Baylor, Senior Counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, explained various rationales for censorship and how the Supreme Court incorporated these rationales into its decision in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez. Finally, Daphne Patai gave tips on practical ways that students can respond to philosophical objections to free speech within the academy. It was a fascinating discussion.
After lunch, Will Creeley, FIRE's Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, discussed First Amendment case law as it relates to free speech on campus. He demonstrated how federal courts have recognized that the First Amendment applies with full force on college campuses and that it protects controversial and subversive speech.
Samantha Harris, FIRE's Director of Speech Code Research, gave a brief overview of speech codes and FIRE's rating system and Spotlight speech code database. Then, students split up into four groups, each led by a staff member, to work through a worksheet on common problems in speech codes. Students had the opportunity to discuss what constitutes a "red-light" policy and how and why their own schools' codes receive the ratings they do from FIRE.
For Friday night's keynote address, Brookings Institution Scholar, contributing editor for The Atlantic Monthly, and author of Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought Jonathan Rauch discussed the importance of free thought and free exchange in a liberal society. He emphasized how openness to dissent, controversy, and even offense advances knowledge. Rauch posited that it is only through a grand societal discussion, where no voice is censored, that you can hope for progress in both science and society. He pointed out that in a liberal society, instead of asserting the truth of our own ideas and the falsehood of others' by killing those with whom we disagree, we attack the ideas themselves. That is, "In liberal science, we kill our hypotheses instead of each other."
Rauch also challenged the claims of college administrators that speech codes protect minorities, arguing that free speech protections offer the best benefits to minorities. In fact, minorities are more likely to be marginalized or harmed by the majority if it gains tools like speech codes to enforce its will. That is why, he concluded, "You, the people in this room, and the people of FIRE, are the real defenders of the weak."
On Saturday morning, FIRE's Sweidy Stata Video Fellow Joe Stramowski discussed how to record good video on a low budget. He covered shooting (including proper framing), editing, and how students can record censorship on campus easily and cheaply. I added a few tips on how to get the word out about their blogs and videos through the blogosphere, Twitter, and Facebook.
Then, students were treated to a few horror stories from past FIRE cases. Chris Lee talked about how Washington State University paid for forty students to attend Chris's play and disrupt it in an outrageous act of censorship. Michele Kerr discussed how Stanford University's School of Education attempted to kick her out of the program—twice—for expressing disagreement with the school's educational philosophy. Braum Katz then explained how he was able to work with the student government at The College of William & Mary to reform the college's speech codes to receive a green-light rating in FIRE's Spotlight database.
Finally, students split into small groups for one final session on activism. Students were able to discuss their speech codes with a member of FIRE's staff as well as brainstorm and plan out ways to encourage their schools to reform their codes.
All in all, it was a very successful conference. We look forward to working with these bright and engaged students to advance liberty on their campuses throughout their higher education careers.