Introducing FIRE Summer Intern Megan Zielinski

By June 20, 2013

Megan Zielinski is a rising junior at Washington University in St. Louis, where she is studying philosophy with a focus on law and policy. She is the president of the Pre-Law Society and an editor of The Circuit, Washington University’s undergraduate law journal. She also tutors and mentors Spanish-speaking children through the Niños program. She previously interned at the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office.On her decision to intern at FIRE, Megan writes:When searching for summer internships that would allow me to contribute to an important cause and get experience in the legal world, I came across the FIRE Internship Program. I was intrigued by FIRE’s mission: to fight for individual rights on college campuses. A deeper dive into the FIRE website left me appalled at the many flagrant violations of the First Amendment on campus. I was taken aback by the many instances in which administrators abused their power to punish students and professors whose speech was entirely protected.Though no recent FIRE cases have come from Washington University, I learned that it is a “red light” school, which means that at least one policy clearly and substantially limits freedom of speech. The Residential Life harassment policy was recently given the dishonor of being named the April Speech Code of the Month. ResLife defines harassment as “any behavior or conduct that is injurious, or potentially injurious, to a person’s physical, emotional, or psychological well-being, as determined at the sole discretion of the University.” This policy starkly contrasts the standard for peer-on-peer harassment in the educational context that the Supreme Court set out in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education. In short, the Court ruled that in order for a school to classify conduct (including speech) as harassment, it must be “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively bars the victim’s access to an educational opportunity or benefit.” This standard has been used for years to assess harassment policies on college campuses, and many courts have rejected policies that fail to meet the Davis standard.I was stunned! I felt that my beloved Wash U had failed me by maintaining this blatantly unconstitutional speech code. Yet when I shared my disappointment and outrage with my friends and peers, I was met with overwhelmingly lackluster responses. Though many of these students had a basic understanding of the rights guaranteed to them by the First Amendment, it quickly became clear that they did not appreciate the importance of truly open discourse for a collegiate environment. The best way for us to learn more about issues, ourselves, and the world around us is to engage people with whom we disagree rather than attempt to silence them by banning their speech that we do not like. I hope to return to school in the fall able to change my peer’s attitudes about the First Amendment and fight against my school’s speech code.Welcome, Megan! To support FIRE’s internship program, visit thefire.org/interns.