March 2012: Allen Mendenhall

Allen Mendenhall is a lawyer in Georgia and a Ph.D. candidate at Auburn University. He commutes to Alabama from his hometown of Atlanta, where he lives with his wife and three month old son, to teach and study English. Prior to pursuing his Ph.D., Allen received an M.A. in English, a J.D., and a master of laws (LL.M.). At Auburn, he is a graduate student representative for the Graduate Studies Committee of Auburn’s English Department, and he recently spent a semester teaching in a nearby prison.

As a member of FIRE’s Campus Freedom Network, Allen has been active in advocating for student rights. After hearing about an ongoing case at Auburn where a student was asked to take down a Ron Paul banner from his dorm window (while other students were allowed to keep their window decorations), Allen wrote a column for the Montgomery Advertiser encouraging the Auburn administration to allow students to freely express themselves. He writes, in part, “It is one thing to regulate student behavior on campus. It is quite another to run afoul of the First Amendment.”

As a teacher and a lover of the humanities, Allen believes free speech has a very important place in the classroom—particularly, his classroom. “Despite what some might think, freedom of expression is more limited in the humanities than in other disciplines where opinions need to be backed by hard data and rational argument,” he notes. “Too often those who proclaim the virtues of tolerance can be quite intolerant. In my classroom, students may advocate for any point of view that they believe to be correct, so long as they are willing to offer principled reasons in support of it. In other words, there are no restrictions on the content of opinions expressed in my class.”

As such, Allen will frequently tell students to come to him if they are feeling intimidated by other professors. “People outside the academy would be surprised to learn how often students do, in fact, feel that their values and worldviews are under attack on campus,” he says. “I can remember when I was an undergraduate and some of my professors would mock particular student groups, make fun of particular politicians, and pick arguments with students who held different views. This, I thought, was wrong. I’ve tried hard, in my own little ways, to make the university a ‘marketplace of ideas,’ to borrow the words of Justice Holmes. I think I’ve succeeded in my classroom, and I can only hope that my influence and example will spread to other classrooms.”

And this is Allen’s form of advocacy. As a teacher and a student, he has the unique opportunity to provide to students what he was denied as an undergraduate—a place to speak his mind. “I have no grand plans to transform the university or to remake the face of education,” he says. “I do what I can, starting with my classroom, and I hope that my influence will inspire people to explore my views as well as their own. I’m always available to students who want to talk about what they believe, no matter what that might be. To the extent that I have a ‘project,’ it’s to make every setting I find myself in as open to productive knowledge exchanges as I can.

Allen’s advice for fellow students seeking to make their campuses havens for free speech is best portrayed in his own words: “Be smart. Know what you think and why you think it. Avoid habits of thought. Challenge yourself. By doing these things, you will, I think, come closer to understanding the realities that are separate from your impressions of them, and you will, I hope, learn what ideas you are willing to act upon. Those are the ideas that constitute ‘beliefs.’”