Daphne Patai on FIRE’s CFN Conference and How Students Can ‘Fight for Free Speech on Our “Sensitive” Campuses’

By July 30, 2010

Daphne Patai, professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and member of FIRE’s Board of Directors, has authored a detailed overview of the CFN Summer Conference over at Minding the Campus.

Professor Patai describes the genesis of the CFN conference and why it is essential to FIRE’s mission:

[FIRE Co-Founder Harvey Silverglate] has long argued that in addition to its case-by-case approach, FIRE needs to make deeper efforts to change the campus culture of political correctness, itself the driving force behind the decline of free speech on campus. As a result, in 2008 FIRE inaugurated a yearly conference for college students—those in the trenches who are fighting these battles at their own colleges and universities, often with little overt support from their cowering colleagues. At the moment, the Campus Freedom Network has about 4,000 members, but the yearly conference is intentionally kept small, so that dialogue is encouraged and information shared in a more personal setting.

After describing the conference presentations, she closes with some important words of advice for students to remember as they seek to reform their own campuses:

Always remember that red-light schools are violating the law; look carefully at their codes of conduct and other policies, and consider rewriting these for them. Highlight the absurd results of existing speech codes (e.g., the ban on anonymous literature at Katz’s college would have made it impossible for Thomas Paine to distribute his famous 1776 pamphlet "Common Sense"). Build coalitions. Work with student government. Find allies in the campus media. Realize that journalists are your friends. Make your efforts visible. Write Op Eds. Know your audience. Argue with each constituency in terms it will understand: To administrators: help them achieve what ought to be their true goals; recognize that they borrow policies from other schools and often don’t even understand the implications of those policies; point out legal liabilities. To students: stress that they’re too smart for these codes and that their interests are not truly served by them. Use the FIOA and FERPA. Keep good notes. Go multimedia. Use blogs. Get a domain name. Be flexible. As [Michelle] Kerr mentioned, when Stanford made her shut down her blog, instead of wasting energy fighting them on this particular issue—though she knew she would win since they had no policy against blogging—she simply changed the blog name from "Surviving Stanford" to "Hating Dewey." Stanford continued to seek access to her password-protected blog. She refused to grant it to them. Follow up with the administration; be firm but unrelenting in your conviction that these are your rights. Especially at public universities, know that your victory is inevitable.

All students, faculty and administrators interested in freedom of inquiry and thought on campus should read Daphne’s entire piece. Here’s the link.

For more on the CFN conference, you can read my account of the conference here, as well as takes from Greg Baylor, senior counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, here and student attendee Irena Schneider here).