(Credit: University of Texas Austin / Flickr)

A Longhorn’s lessons in free speech

By August 7, 2018

If the eyes are the windows to the soul, creativity is the key that unlocks the front door. As college students, we’re pushed to our limits in academic and extracurricular commitments alike; we are no strangers to stress. And sometimes, we’re left with only one option: to develop creative solutions to our problems. But what would happen if the tool that allows us to be creative thinkers was no longer available on our campuses? What would happen if our institutions limited our expression? If I have learned anything from my time in college, it is that no two students are alike, and there must be a way for all students to engage with others on the issues that they feel most passionate about. We risk losing the benefits of constructive dialogue when free speech and expression are stifled, casting aside the possibility of creative discourse — and that limits our ideas’ ability to flourish. Protecting that freedom begins and ends with us, the students.

These issues, and more, were discussed at FIRE’s 2018 Student Network Summer Conference, which I came away from feeling more inspired than ever about the future of free speech on college campuses nationwide. The attendees were inquisitive, passionate, and determined to identify the tools necessary to make a difference at their respective universities. On the last day of the conference, the interns gave a presentation about unprotected areas of speech under the First Amendment. After we finished, one student asked us how we felt more prepared to tackle free speech issues on campus after interning with FIRE. As the emcee of the presentation, I didn’t get the chance to answer the question, but I listened intently to my peers explain how their experiences at FIRE changed their perspectives on free speech. And boy, did I notice a difference in us.

Some of my fellow interns spoke of increased activism while others touched upon policy changes they’d like to see in their schools’ administrations. They highlighted innovative means to address free speech issues, the tools they’ve acquired through FIRE to do so, and proposed a future for free speech that I know each of us will implement to the best of our ability. In their responses, I could see the ways FIRE has expanded our knowledge of free speech and First Amendment advocacy. For example, one student asked us whether hate speech is protected under the First Amendment — a question that left us in silence at the start of our summers with FIRE. Yet we rose to the occasion and explained in detail that hate speech is not recognized as a category of unprotected speech under the First Amendment, as long as it does not cross the line to incitement, threats, or other categories of unprotected speech.

After the conclusion of the conference, the idea of how we’ve changed and grown since we began working for FIRE has not left me. I think often to what I would have said in front of those students, how my view of free speech on campus has changed, and what I can do more to protect it.

I fear that many students know too little about their rights. I fear that students, whether it be my friends or students that I’ve never met, who rely on free speech on a daily basis, will not even know when their rights are infringed. This is why I am lucky to have worked at FIRE; I was exposed to this knowledge by working with FIRE staff in a variety of programs, from litigation to policy reform to student outreach. The facets of free speech are vast, and I firmly believe that students must familiarize themselves with the intricacies of the First Amendment to truly understand the extent of our rights.

And this is what I’m taking back with me to campus; I want to spread awareness of student rights, shed light upon the University of Texas as a “red light” school, and continue the discussion of why our rights as students matter to the daily success of our university. The University of Texas’s motto is, “What starts here changes the world.” But how can we Longhorns change the world when even the academic freedom of our professors is questioned? My answer is that we are hindered from enacting such change when our First Amendment rights are infringed upon, but increasing the awareness of these rights, like free speech, can surely help.

As I have said before, college students are often required to be creative. Solving issues within student-run organizations, navigating the high waters of intensive classes with greater workloads, and even finding time to engage in self-care is difficult within itself. And whether students are aware of it or not, freedom of speech is the key to solving those problems, the key to creativity, and the key to our success.

So I’ll ask again: How can students change the world? First, you must know your rights. Know what you are afforded by the Constitution of the United States, and what you, as students, have the potential to give to the world at large. The possibilities are endless.

Hook ’em.

Jane Cook is a rising senior at the University of Texas at Austin.

Schools: University of Texas at Austin