FIRE Interns Reflect on Summer Experience: A Microcosm for Campus Debate, Intellectual Growth

August 8, 2016

Putting twelve strangers with differing ideological and political views in the same room seems like the set-up to a corny joke. However, this is exactly what FIRE did this summer: Ten undergraduate interns and two legal interns walk into a bar FIRE’s Philadelphia headquarters…

Eight weeks ago, we did just that and, in the process, walked into a summer-long discussion about the First Amendment at institutions of higher education. As was expected, there were times when ideas conflicted. But if there is one thing we could all agree on, it was the importance of our voices on campus. From libertarians to liberals to conservatives, the FIRE interns found themselves in the midst of lively debates that made lasting impressions. Those debates and conversations will be continued on campuses across the country when we return to school in the fall.

An undergraduate education can, and should, take on many different forms. There are times when classrooms will seat students from opposite ends of the world. There are times when unfamiliar disciplines will spark an intellectual curiosity a student never knew they had. There are even times when encountering uncomfortable or controversial ideas will sharpen a student’s critical thinking and analysis skills. However, an undergraduate education cannot, and will not, be complete without the rights at the core of FIRE’s mission: freedom of speech and expression.

Different People. Different Viewpoints. Same FIRE Mission.

“[Undergraduate students] don’t take classes so that they have knowledge for those four years,” said FIRE Intern Samuel Flannery, of Ohio University. “They pick a major and undergo an education that will better equip them for the rest of their lives.”

Fellow intern and Brown University student Rohan Gulati agreed. “We learn the most by talking to those who disagree with us,” Gulati said. “The purpose of an education is to learn and hear from others’ perspectives through discussion and dialogue.”

Erin Dunne, FIRE Intern and Resident Assistant at the University of Michigan, fears the commercialization of the modern college campus will harm educational opportunities. “Part of the conversation has become less about what students have to say and more about what looks best on a university brochure,” she said. Dunne argues that pushes for diversity and inclusion at the expense of free speech actually have the opposite effect.

“You can’t have a diverse and inclusive campus without freedom of speech,” Dunne said.

How, then, do we get to a place where open dialogue and freedom of speech are customary, even encouraged, on college campuses?

Interns Carry FIRE’s Mission to Campuses

FIRE’s role on today’s university campus is about more than just writing letters to administrators to hold them accountable when student speech is marginalized. FIRE safeguards the importance of freedom of speech on campus.

“In a country-wide political system that has become so polarized as a zero-sum game, it is hard to find people who support civil liberties as a matter of principle,” says FIRE Intern and Swarthmore College student Lewis Fitzgerald-Holland.

“[FIRE] acts as proof that not everyone is cynical,” argued fellow intern Alec Ward, of the University of Pennsylvania. “[They’re] not out to further anyone’s political agenda or try to move power from one person to another. It is socially important that organizations like FIRE exist, because they believe in the principle and not the position.”

Those principles are put into practice at every level, from the Stand Up For Speech (SUFS) Litigation Project, to providing student activists with educational resources.

“There is more to free speech than responding to some recent event,” FIRE Intern and Duke University Open Campus Coalition founding member Caroline Wang said. “We want to promote and practice freedom of speech—which entails engaging in dialogue with people who have differing viewpoints.” This is why students, faculty, staff, and administrators alike must foster an environment on campus where expression is not hindered by restrictive policies or potential punishment.

“FIRE has taught me that there is a deep value in disagreement, and there is danger in complacency,” said Mary Zoeller, FIRE Legal Intern and former president of the Villanova Law chapter of the Federalist Society. “FIRE has allowed me to participate in uncomfortable learning and dialogue,” Zoeller added. “I hope to engage with my fellow law students in similar dialogues.”

Fellow FIRE Intern Ella Reider said she would, too. Reider said she would “attempt to start an ‘Uncomfortable Learning’ chapter” at New York University where she is a student, and would “keep in touch with FIRE staff to revise [NYU’s] red-light policies.”

“Even listening to bad ideas helps us see our own position from a different angle and strengthen our arguments accordingly,” Reider said.

FIRE interns also learned that censoring speech does nothing to actually address the underlying ideas.

“Limiting speech you don’t like doesn’t necessarily limit the ideas you don’t like,” said Harvard University student and FIRE Intern Tim Devine. “To some extent, you even become responsible for the suppression of political solutions to controversial issues on campus and at society at large.”

Fellow FIRE Intern Bayard Miller, of the University of Pittsburgh, noted that “suppressing unfavorable speech gives legitimacy to the rebelliousness of that idea. Driving people underground does nothing to remove an ideology.”

“Don’t suppress or outlaw something,” Miller added. “Counter it with better ideas.”

A university campus is precisely the space to do so. It is a place where people can confront the proverbial ‘other side’ and discuss ideas otherwise unwelcome in the public or political arena.

“Historically, and more so recently, campuses have become a microphone and platform for social issues,” said FIRE Intern and Johns Hopkins University student Elizabeth Gudgel. “If we don’t have free speech, the university will no longer be a place of activism and support for ideas. It will be left behind as a place for social progress.”

FIRE Internships: Free Speech Principles in Action

FIRE not only defends students when their freedom of speech has been encroached upon, but advocates for students to always use their own voices. FIRE recognizes the inherent value of advocating for a place where ideas can flourish through words and debate.

Eight weeks ago, twelve strangers who believed in the power of free speech began an internship with FIRE. While we will leave FIRE and return to our respective campuses come fall, we have become better equipped to continue advocating for free speech on campus and better at recognizing the social change it can bring.

The FIRE internship is the embodiment of the very principle it seeks to teach: There is value in seeking out, and working with, others who offer different opinions. The most effective way to address national, even global, problems is with a diversity of ideas.

FIRE interns learned that firsthand this summer.

Vanessa Miller is a FIRE Legal Intern.