Second Annual Campus Freedom Network Conference a Smashing Success

By June 26, 2009

The Second Annual Campus Freedom Network Conference took place June 18–20 and was a smashing success. Fifty-one students from across the country gathered in Philadelphia for two days of lectures, panels, and workshops on all aspects of free speech on campus. In an effort to maximize the conference’s potential, we filmed several interviews with students and speakers, live streamed the conference, and even invited students, FIRE staff, and the general public to join in a public conversation about the conference on Twitter using the #cfn09 hashtag.

The conference kicked off Thursday evening with dinner and a lecture by KC Johnson, professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center and co-author of Until Proven Innocent: Political Correctness and the Shameful Injustices of the Duke Lacrosse Rape Case. Professor Johnson regaled the conference attendees with the horrifying circumstances of university and prosecutorial misconduct surrounding the Duke lacrosse "rape" case. FIRE supporters need no introduction to the spinelessness of many university administrators, and Duke is no exception. Johnson discussed the actions of the Duke administration, specifically Duke President Richard Brodhead, who declared before a meeting of the Durham Chamber of Commerce, "If our students did what is alleged, it is appalling to the worst degree. If they didn’t do it, whatever they did is bad enough." Duke’s conduct was a deplorable and irresponsible way for a university administration and its faculty to treat students, and Professor Johnson was essential in bringing these abuses to light. I previously discussed Until Proven Innocent and the Duke lacrosse case in a series of entries here, here, here, and here.

After breakfast Friday morning, FIRE Co-founder and Chairman Harvey Silverglate gave a short talk about founding FIRE, titled "If FIRE Didn’t Exist, Why We Would Have to Invent It." He discussed the importance of free and open debate for the advancement of truth. Harvey played an inspirational segment from an old speech by astronomer Carl Sagan which eloquently made Harvey’s point.

Harvey then moderated a panel comprised of University of Massachusetts at Amherst professor and FIRE Board of Directors member Daphne Patai, former FIRE president and current Director of the Alliance Defense Fund’s Center for Academic Freedom David French, and Executive Director of the Stanford Constitutional Law Center Derek Shaffer on the philosophical and practical underpinnings of academic liberty. Each participant was uniquely qualified to discuss the topic. Professor Patai has decades of experience as an outspoken advocate of free speech on campus and as a distinguished professor. Her latest book, What Price Utopia?, is a collection of her essays discussing the academic environment. Mr. French authored FIRE’s Guide to Religious Liberty on Campus and has litigated on behalf of religious liberty and free speech in a number of cases. He recently successfully litigated DeJohn v. Temple University in the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, where the court struck down Temple University’s unconstitutional speech code. (FIRE had filed an amicus brief in that case.) Professor Shaffer has lectured extensively on constitutional law as Executive Director of Stanford’s Constitutional Law Center and has litigated in defense of constitutional rights from his previous work in private practice in our nation’s capital.

That afternoon, FIRE President Greg Lukianoff discussed the disturbing trend of students "unlearning liberty." Greg argued that leaders set the tone for those under their tutelage, so as administrators censor student speech under egregious campus codes, students learn how to handle offensive words: they silence them. When students steal copies of a student paper because it publishes an article critical of them and the administration does nothing, students learn that silencing those who disagree or are critical of one’s views is acceptable.

Samantha Harris, FIRE’s Director of Speech Code Research, followed up with a half-hour explanation of speech codes. After that, students split up into four groups, headed respectively by Sam, FIRE Vice President Robert Shibley, Individual Rights Defense Program Director Adam Kissel, and Justice Robert H. Jackson Legal Fellow Azhar Majeed. Each student was alerted to the speech codes at his or her university as documented by each school’s Spotlight page. (Spotlight is FIRE’s compendium of campus speech codes.) Students went through a worksheet with the FIRE staffer to discuss common speech codes, and they had the opportunity to ask questions about the speech codes on their own campuses. It was an enlightening exercise aimed at giving students a thorough understanding of what is wrong with the specific codes at their own universities.

That evening, noted civil libertarian, lawyer, and FIRE Board of Advisors member Wendy Kaminer lectured over dinner on the historical context for the avid censorship FIRE fights at universities. A lively discussion followed the talk. Kaminer has extensive experience as a defender of free speech rights. She is the author of eight books, most recently Worst Instincts: Cowardice, Conformity, and the ACLU. Earlier this week, Will highlighted her recent post at The Atlantic discussing the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit’s ruling in Truth v. Kane. The Ninth Circuit’s ruling has been appealed to the Supreme Court, and FIRE has filed an amicus brief in the case.

On Saturday morning, attendees listened to a panel on "using new media in the fight for liberty." Campus Freedom Network Program Officer Brandon Stewart discussed ways that FIRE was using new media and how the attendees could help further FIRE’s reach through the use of these tools. In addition, he previewed a fall CFN campaign to use wikis to make student handbooks more accessible to students. CFN member Charles Johnson of Claremont McKenna College discussed his successful blog The Claremont Conservative and how students can use blogging to publicize incidents of campus censorship. Independent filmmaker Andrew Marcus wrapped up the panel with a discussion of how to effectively capture incidents of censorship on film. Marcus has extensive experience documenting free speech abuses on campus. He produced Political Correctness vs. Freedom of Thought-The Keith John Sampson Story, documenting FIRE’s case at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, where student Keith John Sampson was found guilty of racial harassment for reading an anti-Klan book. Marcus also co-produced FIRE on Campus: An Introduction to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and FIRE in Action: Valdosta State University with Evan Coyne Maloney, producer of Indoctrinate U.

The conference wrapped up with a panel of students discussing their experiences with campus censorship. University of Delaware graduate Alyssa Koser discussed the coercive residence life program that FIRE helped dismantle at her campus. She was a resident assistant at the time. Alyssa appeared in FIRE’s video on the incident, Think What We Think…Or Else, which has garnered over 50,000 views on YouTube. Alyssa also discussed an episode of press censorship when the university refused to allow a student paper to distribute copies on campus. She was instrumental in helping to remove administrative censorship and restore freedom of the press to campus. Northern Kentucky University student Alex Kindell discussed her experience leading a coalition of politically and ideologically diverse student groups in a successful effort to eliminate campus "free speech zones" and to reform other censorious policies. Finally, Washington State University graduate Chris Lee related his experience as a student playwright who was—how shall I put it?—creatively censored by the WSU administration after he started putting on performances of his play, "Passion of the Musical," a satirical rendition of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. The WSU administration bought forty tickets and organized a cadre of students to attend, heckle, and threaten Chris and his actors. Chris turned to FIRE, and his rights were eventually vindicated. Overall, the student panel offered a moving testimony to the real threats to freedom of speech on campus.

This year’s conference was a smash hit with topics focused but wide-ranging enough to provide students with a firm foundation for understanding the origins of their rights, the practical effects of having rights, and how they can defend those rights on campus. These 51 students are now prepared to return to their campuses and reform them for liberty. I invite you to view photos from this year’s conference on the CFN’s website.