Zoe Kuenstler is a rising senior at the University of Pittsburgh, studying the Arabic language and majoring in anthropology and economics. Zoe’s main extracurricular activities include serving on the executive board of the co-ed national honors fraternity Phi Sigma Pi as external secretary and acting as project manager for the Pittsburgh chapter of Students Consulting for Non-Profit Organizations.
Zoe writes about her reasons for interning at FIRE:
When I was a freshman in high school my African Asian studies teacher taught a three week long lesson on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one week spent on the Israeli side, one week spent on the Palestinian side and a culminating debate. Growing up in a predominantly Jewish household I had never before been exposed to the Palestinian side of the issue and was excited to expand my knowledge on this issue that I had thought that I already knew everything about. Very quickly, however, I became aware that many of the parents did not approve of such a controversial topic being taught, and attempted to pressure my high school administration into putting an end to the lesson. Fortunately, the administration remained firm in their support of my teacher and free speech and the lesson prevailed. This was my first experience with censorship, and unfortunately the only instance in which I have witnessed a just (and constitutional) outcome.
After I entered college I realized that my high school’s handling of censorship was greatly different than the way higher education would handle it. Growing up as the daughter of of a tenured college professor who has worked in many different capacities as a college administrator, I have been exposed to the increasingly dismal state of student rights within higher education. Despite this fact, it wasn’t until I began my college career that I realized that the loss of student rights within higher education largely stemmed from unconstitutional campus policies that violated the most fundamental aspects of the First Amendment. I quickly took up the study of Arabic during my first semesters at college and befriended many people interested in Middle East politics, particularly the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, with friends spanning both sides of the issue. Both my pro-Israel and pro-Palestine friends came under fire from the administration for their views. I became intrigued by the work of FIRE after a personal friend of mine who had graduated from the University of Pittsburgh and moved on to graduate school posted a Facebook status about the censorship that his student group that participated in activist affairs in the realm of Middle East politics campus organization was suffering at the hands of bureaucratic politics. Someone commented on his status that he should contact FIRE to help his organization deal with the issue and I was intrigued.
I began to check FIRE’s website every week, in order to keep an eye on my school and my friends’ schools. Finally, an organization that recognized the importance of treating free speech as a non-partisan issue. In today’s bitterly polarized environment of contemporary America where both sides infringe on free speech in the name of its protection, FIRE’s acknowledgement that this is a non-partisan issue is the principled road to take, albeit the less traveled one. One cannot grow as a student, citizen, or human being without the opportunity to challenge and be challenged — and this sentiment must be one that American higher education seeks to uphold.
Welcome, Zoe! Be sure to check back on The Torch tomorrow to see more from our new interns!