Introducing FIRE Summer Intern Brendan Zehner

June 17, 2014

Brendan Zehner is a rising senior at The College of William and Mary (W&M), where he is a double major in history and public policy. He comes to FIRE as a staunch believer in the First Amendment and he hopes to gain the skills to become a force to be reckoned with when it comes to student rights and due process.

Here’s what Brendan has to say about working as an intern at FIRE:

When I was in seventh grade, I was a member of my elementary school’s public speaking club. My mission: write an engaging seven-minute speech, memorize it, and wow audiences across the township. Desperate for inspiration, I scoured the only two sources of news I knew of: Nickelodeon News and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Nickelodeon failed me, but The Inquirer had a strange story. There was a controversy at the University of Connecticut due to its speech code, which banned laughter at inappropriate jokes. I laughed. I could not believe that this was real. Sadly, I was wrong.

As I dug deeper, I came across FIRE and the work that it did across the country. Each time I thought that I had uncovered the most egregious violation of First Amendment rights, another story came out. When I began writing my speech, I worried that I could not spend seven full minutes discussing speech codes. I discovered that I could not discuss speech codes in just seven minutes. While I didn’t necessarily wow many people, they were surprised to learn about the pervasiveness of unconstitutional practices at universities across the country.

I continued to follow FIRE throughout high school. When the time came to pick a college, I knew better than to assume that it would encourage a free exchange of ideas. To my delight, W&M was not only a “green light” school, but it was one of the seven best schools for freedom of speech in 2011 and 2012. There continues to be progress—in March of 2013, Virginia passed the Student Group Protection Act, guaranteeing freedom of association rights for student organizations. But the fight for students’ rights is not over. This past January, Delegate Rick Morris introduced a right to counsel bill, which would have allowed students to have an attorney during a campus disciplinary proceeding. The bill failed to get out of the Education Committee. Now, W&M is under pressure to restrict its students’ due process rights in order to combat sexual assault.

Frustration with the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses is commendable and understandable. Restricting due process rights is not. Students do not have the same vim to protect due process rights as they do to protect free speech rights. But they are interdependent. That is why I hope to return to William and Mary to encourage the students to fight for their due process rights.

Welcome, Brendan! Be sure to check back on The Torch this week to see more from our new interns!

Schools:  The College of William & Mary