Introducing FIREside Chats and an Interview with FIRE’s Sarah McLaughlin

December 24, 2015

Today, we invite readers to enjoy the premiere of FIREside Chats, a series of feature interviews with FIRE staff. In these interviews, FIRE staff members will discuss their interest in free speech, involvement with FIRE, and favorite free speech moment. The purpose of FIREside Chats is to give readers a better understanding of why FIRE’s staff is passionate about what we do. The subject of FIRE’s inaugural FIREside Chat is Sarah McLaughlin, manager of FIRE’s social media accounts and Program Officer for FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program.

Those of you who regularly follow FIRE’s work know Sarah for her engaging tweets and in-depth articles about violations of student free press and free speech rights. However, many readers are unfamiliar with how Sarah developed her love of for civil liberties. In my interview with Sarah, she described what sparked her initial interest in the First Amendment.

“I’ve always been interested in anti-war protests, especially protests against the Vietnam War in the ’60s, and I think it’s impossible to study them without recognizing the power and importance of free speech,” said Sarah.

Her favorite free speech court case, Cohen v. California, is about a Vietnam War protester. Frequent readers of The Torch may be familiar with Cohen, as FIRE references it often, but I will summarize it for those unfamiliar with First Amendment case law.

Cohen is a 1971 Supreme Court case in which Paul Robert Cohen was arrested for wearing a jacket saying “Fuck the Draft” inside a Los Angeles courthouse. Cohen was arrested and convicted of violating the California Penal Code for disturbing the peace by using “vulgar, profane, or indecent language within the presence or hearing of women or children.”

The Supreme Court overturned Cohen’s conviction, holding that “the State may not, consistently with the First and Fourteenth Amendments, make the simple public display here involved of this single four-letter expletive a criminal offense.” Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote the majority opinion for the Court, which includes Sarah’s favorite line in the case: “[O]ne man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric.”

An avid reader, Sarah loves anything by Kurt Vonnegut and sees him as a free speech advocate. Vonnegut demonstrated a commitment to free speech, for example, in 1973, when he wrote a letter to the president of North Dakota’s Drake High School after the school burned 32 copies of Slaughterhouse-Five. This is one of Sarah’s favorite free speech moments in history and she describes Vonnegut’s argument against burning his book as “one of the most compelling arguments against censorship.” Vonnegut states:

I read in the newspaper that your community is mystified by the outcry from all over the country about what you have done. Well, you have discovered that Drake is a part of American civilization, and your fellow Americans can’t stand it that you have behaved in such an uncivilized way. Perhaps you will learn from this that books are sacred to free men for very good reasons, and that wars have been fought against nations which hate books and burn them. If you are an American, you must allow all ideas to circulate freely in your community, not merely your own.

If you and your board are now determined to show that you in fact have wisdom and maturity when you exercise your powers over the education of your young, then you should acknowledge that it was a rotten lesson you taught young people in a free society when you denounced and then burned books—books you hadn’t even read. You should also resolve to expose your children to all sorts of opinions and information, in order that they will be better equipped to make decisions and to survive.

The administrators at Drake High School had Slaughterhouse-Five burned because they found it “obscene” or blasphemous. To Sarah, Slaughterhouse-Five and the rest of Vonnegut’s books are “some of the most moving and thought-provoking books I’ve ever read.” According to her, these different opinions on Slaughterhouse-Five illustrate Justice Harlan’s point in Cohen that one man’s vulgarity is another man’s lyric.

Sarah came to FIRE in September 2012 from Drexel University’s cooperative education program—a program that allows students to work full-time jobs for six-month periods during college. As a political science major with an interest in civil liberties, she was very excited for the opportunity to work at FIRE. She graduated from Drexel in 2014 and began working for FIRE full-time.

Sarah’s favorite case during her time at FIRE comes from the University of Tulsa. In 2014, the University of Tulsa suspended student George “Trey” Barnett and banned him from from the campus until 2016 after his husband wrote Facebook posts criticizing a TU student and two TU faculty members. TU’s administrators hit a new low when they hid posts about Trey’s case that were posted on TU’s Facebook page.

“University of Tulsa is my favorite case because it kind of has all of the examples of administrators doing everything they can to suppress criticism,” said Sarah.

In addition to working on cases for FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program, Sarah manages FIRE’s Facebook and Twitter accounts. Sarah enjoys doing FIRE’s social media because she has the chance to talk to so many people she would not otherwise have the chance to meet.

One fun fact about Sarah is that she is the office Lord of the Rings nerd. Sarah even recently wrote a post for Popehat about The Lord of the Rings and free speech in Turkey.

If you are interested in getting to know Sarah better, follow her on Twitter!

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