It is a few days after the CFN Conference, and the FIRE office is still running on post-conference excitement (and more than a little caffeine). The annual conference, held at Bryn Mawr College, brought together student activists from across the country to learn about First Amendment rights and what they can do to uphold these rights on their college campuses. Interactive sessions conducted by FIRE staff, engaging keynote speakers, and many opportunities for thought-provoking conversation made this weekend a truly memorable and worthwhile experience.
When I got an opportunity to sit down and reflect, I compiled a list of my top five favorite moments from this year’s conference. Here they are, in chronological order:
1. Professor Donald Downs telling us to “make trouble”
Professor Donald Downs of the University of Wisconsin-Madison kicked off the conference Friday night with a keynote relating his experiences defending free speech at Madison. Of his lessons on activism, one of the ones that I particularly took to heart was to “make trouble” in the face of administrative resistance. As we have seen in cases at University of Wisconsin-Stout, The College of William & Mary, and hundreds of other schools, a little noise can go a long way.
2. Learning about “America’s Worst Speech Codes” from Samantha Harris
On Saturday, FIRE staffers spoke on topics ranging from due process to case law to the worst cases FIRE has seen. Samantha Harris, FIRE’s Director of Speech Code Research, gave a presentation entitled “America’s Worst Speech Codes,” in which she cited several examples of perplexing campus speech codes that drew laughs from the crowd. Drexel University’s prohibitions on “inappropriately directed laughter” and “holding or eating food provocatively” stood out as particularly headscratch-worthy.
3. The FIRE intern panel
Bright and early Sunday morning, this year’s FIRE interns (including myself) led small group discussions aimed at resolving two hypothetical cases of First Amendment violations on college campuses. Having heard from the FIRE staff the day prior, we were well-equipped to tackle these complex scenarios and came out of the session feeling empowered to uphold individual rights at our own schools.
4. Hearing from real students from FIRE cases
Following the intern session, we were fortunate enough to hear from a panel of our peers who had had the first-hand experience of championing First Amendment rights at their schools. The panel included recent Sam Houston State University graduate Morgan Freeman, former Syracuse University College of Law student Len Audaer, former Syracuse education student Matt Werenczak, Auburn University graduate Eric Philips, and Vanderbilt University student and former FIRE intern Kenny Tan. The panelists candidly explained their stories, which included constructing a free speech wall only to have it be censored by a professor, being investigated for harassment after writing a satirical blog, and making reasoned arguments for free speech in the student newspaper. I can’t express how impressed I was with this group of student activists.
5. Bob Corn-Revere chronicling Hayden Barnes’ long ordeal
Last but not least, celebrated First Amendment attorney Bob Corn-Revere closed out the conference by recounting his experiences representing Hayden Barnes, a student at Valdosta State University who was expelled for peacefully protesting former university President Ronald Zaccari’s plan to build two parking garages on campus. If you are curious, looking for a good read, or just plain puzzled, I suggest checking out FIRE’s coverage of this case. It is one of my favorite FIRE cases, so to get the insider’s perspective from Bob Corn-Revere himself was a unique opportunity.
It was a fun and productive weekend to say the least. More generally, I came away from the conference feeling confident that with the efforts of individuals like our conference attendees, speakers, and FIRE staff, we can continue to successfully challenge the unconstitutional practices of universities and colleges across the country.
To learn more about and register for the Campus Freedom Network, check out the CFN website!