FIREside Chat: An Interview with Shelby Emmett

By January 5, 2016

FIRE Legal and Legislative Policy Advocate Shelby Emmett is the subject of today’s FIREside Chat.

Shelby works out of FIRE’s Washington, D.C. office, where she spends a lot of her time corresponding with lawmakers from across the country about student rights. She is the perfect person to do this, as she is a former congressional staffer and, in college, was a student activist with the James Madison College Diversity Initiative and W.E.B. DuBois Society at Michigan State University.

Shelby joined FIRE in April after working on Capitol Hill for three years. FIRE’s work combines her three passions, “advocacy, free speech, and policy formation.”

Growing up in and around Detroit, Shelby always felt like she had a different opinion than everyone else.

“I’ve always felt like the odd man out and had a different opinion than the majority,” said Shelby.

Shelby became interested in the First Amendment and free speech because of her experiences having minority opinions. She said she always feels “related to the marginalized group of the moment.”

Sojourner Truth, the abolitionist and women’s right activist, is Shelby’s free speech hero. She is known for her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, given in May of 1851 at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio. It’s disputed as to whether she ever used the phrase “Ain’t I a Woman?,” but Truth, a former slave, certainly argued that black women should be included in the definition of “woman” because, at that time, the women’s rights movement was reserved for white women. Her speech was one of the first times the general American population heard from a black woman.

“She had the power and strength to use the only tool she had at that time—her voice,” said Shelby. “By giving that speech, she was risking her actual freedom. I feel I have a duty to defend and advocate for free speech because women like Sojourner risked it all so I could speak today.”

In Shelby’s time at FIRE, the project she’s enjoyed working on the most is FIRE’s video on affirmative consent. For the project, Shelby and FIRE Production and Design Manager Chris Maltby went to New York University and interviewed students about their understanding of New York’s affirmative consent law. Shelby finds projects like the video a good way to stay in touch with the students FIRE advocates for, as well as a tool to help legislators connect with students.

One of Shelby’s goals during her time at FIRE is to bring students and their elected representatives together to talk about free speech on campus.

When Shelby was a student at Michigan State, she testified in front of members of the Michigan Legislature and found the opportunity very satisfying.

“It was gratifying to speak for myself instead of having others do it for me,” said Shelby. “I look forward to giving other students a chance to speak with their representatives about issues they are passionate about.”

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