A Recap of FIRE’s 2013 Campus Freedom Network Conference

By July 23, 2013

Aaron Coven is a FIRE summer intern.In the same week that the First Amendment Center (FAC) released a study that noted the “significant increase in those who claimed that the First Amendment goes too far in protecting individual rights,” including 47% of those surveyed between 18 and 30 years old, FIRE hosted its sixth annual Campus Freedom Network (CFN) Conference at Bryn Mawr College in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. While the FAC’s findings are disheartening, one may find solace in the fact that this year’s CFN conference was the highest attended yet, with more than seventy students traveling from across the country (including several students coming all the way from California!) to attend the event. I found it particularly interesting to see the variety of students who attended the conference; some were non-traditional students, while others had only just graduated high school, or were in the midst of a gap year and had not yet begun their college careers. However, despite their varying backgrounds, all of the students enjoyed the extensive programming organized by FIRE’s Jaclyn Hall and Emily Buck. This year, conference attendees were treated to a wide variety of sessions: FIRE staff members gave lectures about their specific endeavors to protect free speech in the higher education setting; invited guests Juan Williams, Megan McArdle, and Bob Corn-Revere discussed the state of open discourse at colleges and universities; a panel of three students presented their personal experiences with campus speech codes; and the FIRE summer interns entertained students with an educational game of Jeopardy!.  Personally, I especially enjoyed two parts of the conference. First, I really liked the breakout sessions, in which students were allowed to decide what aspects of FIRE’s work interest them the most and then engage in discussions with FIRE staff and fellow conference attendees about these topics. I also greatly appreciated the dialogue between students during the time between sessions. It was clear that regardless of whether the students agreed or disagreed with each speaker’s points, they served as an impetus for open debate and discussion. The marketplace of ideas was consistently active throughout the conference; the attendees debated a wide range of topics as diverse as John Adams’ significance and theology during their free time. However, there did not seem to be much free time, as the weekend passed by extremely quickly. At lunch on Sunday afternoon, students swapped contact information with one another and made plans to keep in touch, as FIRE President Greg Lukianoff noted the importance of networking and keeping in contact with one’s fellow students. I found it comforting that, in spite of the FAC’s dismal report, the majority of the students that I spoke with displayed their eagerness to return to campus to engage their school’s administrators about the importance of free speech, and to fight to revamp restrictive speech codes. FIRE looks forward to assisting their efforts and celebrating the students’ successes in advancing First Amendment rights on their campuses.