CFN Students Stand Up for Free Speech on Campus in 2011

December 29, 2011

2011 has been one of FIRE’s most successful years yet, and the members of FIRE’s Campus Freedom Network (CFN)—our coalition of students, faculty, and alumni fighting for individual rights on campus—are no exception. The CFN provides advice and resources to members of college and university communities across the country as they work to change the campus culture from within by fighting for speech code reform, organizing events that bring attention to the problem of censorship on America’s campuses, and defending fellow students whose rights have been infringed upon.

One way to measure this culture change is the number of students and faculty who have committed to defending free speech on their campuses, and CFN membership has skyrocketed this year. Thanks in part to a record number of FIRE campus appearances in 2011, more than 700 new students signed up for the CFN, expanding our total network to more than 5,000 students, faculty, and alumni. With membership growing every day, FIRE is reaching more individuals than ever before—individuals who are working hard to make their campuses havens for free speech and fundamental rights.

As we mentioned above, the CFN connects interested students with the resources necessary to reform oppressive speech codes on their campuses, including the FIRE Speakers Bureau, our Guides to Student Rights on Campus, and advice on how other students have successfully helped to revise campus speech codes. As a result, our members have penned editorials in their campus newspapers, met with administrators to discuss problematic policies, and encouraged their fellow students to get involved in speech code reform. For example:

  • Christe Thompson, a FIRE co-op, wrote here on The Torch earlier this month about her efforts to help revise speech codes at Drexel University this year.
  • Nico Perrino, a former FIRE intern and CFN member at Indiana University-Bloomington (IU), has been a staunch defender of student rights at IU. Nico is currently the chair of a student government committee dedicated to reforming IU’s speech codes.
  • Kenny Tan, another former FIRE intern and CFN member, has started a policy revision campaign at Vanderbilt University. Using resources from the CFN, Kenny has been writing op-eds, meeting with administrators, bringing FIRE speakers to campus, and serving on committees and panels to emphasize the importance of student rights to his peers.

By coupling resources from FIRE with the drive and willingness to advocate for necessary changes, students like Christe, Nico, and Kenny are making real headway in defending the marketplace of ideas on their campuses.

Two CFN members saw their reform efforts come to fruition when Arizona State University (ASU) and James Madison University (JMU) achieved FIRE’s coveted “green light” rating this year. Kelly Jemison, a JMU alumna who worked with her campus group, Madison Liberty, to achieve the necessary policy changes, wrote a compelling piece on The Torch about the challenges, setbacks, and ultimate rewards of working towards speech code revision. As she wrote, the struggle for speech code reform is long and arduous, but their reforms at JMU and ASU ensured that thousands of students will enjoy a freer campus environment for years to come and that students at other schools, inspired by their success, will hopefully decide to pursue similar campaigns of their own.

Other CFN members taught fellow students about their rights in 2011 by organizing public events highlighting free speech issues on campus. As we mentioned above, this was a very successful year for the FIRE Speakers Bureau, largely thanks to the many student and faculty CFN members responsible for planning these campus appearances. One outstanding student, Brandon Wasicsko, organized a FIRE speech not just on his own campus (Florida Gulf Coast University), but at five other schools in Florida as well. In total, FIRE speakers made 50 campus and conference appearances in 2011.

“Free speech walls”—events at which a physical wall is erected on campus and covered in paper, and students are invited to write whatever they want—were another popular and effective event for CFN members in 2011. These events, hosted by CFN members like Michelle Fields at Pepperdine University, Andrew Kaluza at University of Texas San Antonio, Karina Zannat at American University, Moriah Costa at Arizona State University and Morgan Freeman at Sam Houston State University (SHSU), brought campus attention to the issue of free speech. Sometimes, the walls themselves sparked controversies: at Pepperdine, an offended student tore down the free speech wall; and at SHSU, the wall was vandalized by a professor with a box cutter. Fortunately, students at both schools were galvanized by these brazen acts of censorship and stood together to denounce the censors.

In addition to our online resources and campus events, the CFN also provides educational opportunities for students each year. FIRE’s summer internship program offers a ten-week immersion in free speech at FIRE’s Philadelphia office for a handful of undergraduates and law students each year. One of us (Jaclyn) is a former intern herself, and we have both been impressed by what FIRE interns have accomplished in 2011: organizing FIRE speeches, writing op-ed pieces for publication in student and national press, and running reform campaigns on several campuses. For those who cannot commit to a full summer at FIRE, the annual CFN Conference is an opportunity for students to come together with their peers from across the country to learn about campus rights and how to defend them. Many of the students listed above for their accomplishments in 2011 are CFN Conference alums. We are looking forward to announcing the dates and speaker lineup for the 2012 CFN Conference next month.

2011 has truly been a remarkable year for free speech advocacy on America’s campuses. We, the CFN staff, want to thank all of the students and faculty who stood up for free speech on their campuses this year. We have been heartened by your dedication and accomplishments, and can’t wait to work with you in 2012!