A fiery comeback: FIRE Student Network conference returns to Philadelphia

July 23, 2021

After a year of conferences was dashed by the pandemic, the FIRE Student Network summer conference roared back to life at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia from Friday, July 16, to Sunday, July 18. The conference featured more than a dozen speakers and over 80 student attendees — our largest and most popular student event, encouraging students to forge connections and network with peers, reform their campuses’ policies, and engage with FIRE staff and leading civil-liberties advocates.

Executive Director Robert Shibley’s welcome address highlighted the importance of free and fair public forums during international crises like the COVID-19 pandemic. His speech concluded that attempts to centralize, control, and censor information and commentary regarding political and social crises often do more harm than good. Friday night’s keynote speaker — Jane Coaston, host of The New York Times’s podcast, “The Argument” — told an eager audience: “You truly believe that free speech matters and that defending unpopular speech defends your own right to speak,” promising students that “over this weekend, you’re going to learn how to put that belief into action.” And they did. 

FIRE Legal Director Will Creeley gave a powerful endorsement of FIRE’s indiscriminate and principled approach, saying, "We would even defend an anti-First Amendment rally."

Bright and early Saturday morning, students attended Legal Director Will Creeley’s seminar “Free Expression 101: Speech on Campus,” where he gave a powerful endorsement of FIRE’s indiscriminate and principled approach by telling students, “We would even defend an anti-First Amendment rally.” Creeley acknowledged the civil-rights legacy which FIRE’s work honors by adding, “We stand on the shoulders of a lot of folks who were brave enough to stand up for their own rights.” 

Soon after, FIRE’s summer interns helped students navigate the legal differences between protected and unprotected speech, Executive Director Robert Shibley spoke on due process protections on college campuses, and the interns wrapped up the morning session with a mock-trial skit exhibiting a campus conduct trial gone terribly wrong. With an overview of FIRE’s two cardinal causes — the First Amendment and due process rights — students attended their choice of breakout sessions after lunch. 

The afternoon included presentations from FIRE Outreach Program Associates Margaux Granath, Elizabeth Stanley, Sonia Deel, and Mana Afsari showcasing the FIRE Student Network’s two signature programs, Student Defenders and the new Let’s Talk: Civil Discourse Society. Director of Targeted Advocacy Sarah McLaughlin presented on thorny speech issues posed by both global higher education and censorship threats within satellite campuses and international programs. 

Executive Director Robert Shibley’s welcome address highlighted the importance of free and fair public forums during international crises like the COVID-19 pandemic.

Several FIRE attorneys gave presentations on Saturday afternoon as well. The Director of our Individual Rights Defense Program, Adam Steinbaugh, discussed the timely issue of “Social Media and the First Amendment.” Senior Program Officer for Policy Reform Mary Zoeller shared strategies for identifying and reforming restrictive speech policies on campus. Executive Director Robert Shibley returned to discuss his book Twisting Title IX. Staff Attorney Greg Greubel shared his insights into FIRE’s litigation team, and Legislative and Policy Director  Joe Cohn wrapped up the afternoon with an edifying presentation on “How to be a compelling advocate for free speech,” drawing from his decades of nonpartisan legislative First Amendment advocacy. 

Saturday’s thirteen presentations, from twenty diverse members of FIRE’s dedicated staff, concluded in a thought-provoking keynote address from Alex Abdo of Columbia’s Knight First Amendment Institute, wherein Abdo invited attendees to consider the reasonable bounds of a culture of free speech: When is “cancel culture” a legitimate form of counter-speech, rather than censorship? Students also asked Abdo to talk about his work regarding the NSA and government surveillance, Facebook’s speech regulations, and his litigation efforts challenging the government’s system of prepublication review. Abdo barely had time to sit down to enjoy the catered dinner after his address, thanks to the many students eager to hear more about his decades of litigation experience and legal commentary.

FIRE 2021 Summer Intern Barrett Fife, from the College of William and Mary, found the Summer Conference “heartening” because “advocating for free speech on my college campus can feel like a lonely, uphill battle.” She shared how her fellow attendees “remarked that they had never been able to have such civil, engaging conversations on their home campuses due to the culture of careful and chilled speech.”

Thank you everyone for attending the 2021 FIRE Summer Conference. Visit our website for more information about future conferences!