Conference features campus-speech outrages

August 10, 2012

BRYN MAWR, Pa. — Censorship controversies on college campuses can be unsettling to hear about on the news. Meeting the students and lawyers involved in these struggles, however, puts a human face on the issues.

The annual Campus Freedom Network summer conference at Bryn Mawr College offered such an opportunity for attendees to hear firsthand from the individuals at the center of high-profile free-speech cases. The July 27-29 conference, organized by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Education, attracted more than 40 people from across the country.

Many leaders from FIRE gave presentations that focused on efforts by university administrators to infringe on students’ First Amendment rights by expelling dissidents, imposing a narrow ideology or squelching free speech.

The attendees, mostly current undergraduates, seemed particularly enthusiastic about the presentations from former students involved in FIRE cases.

University of Syracuse College of Law graduate Len Audaer spoke about a series of disciplinary measures he had faced starting in October 2010 for writing for a satirical blog about the school. Although the blog contained a disclaimer that the "news" it portrayed was fictional, Syracuse launched a harassment probe and threatened Audaer with a gag order and expulsion. FIRE offered support for Audaer, writing letters urging administrators to drop the investigation and defending the blog as protected expression. The ordeal lasted more than eight months and Audaer said it steadily wore him down. "I couldn’t have lasted this long without FIRE," he said. Syracuse dropped the allegations two weeks after FIRE President Greg Lukianoff listed it as the first of "The 12 Worst Colleges for Free Speech" in an article for The Huffington Post.

Matt Werenczak described his own free-speech ordeal at Syracuse. The education student said he was effectively expelled from the school for remarks he made on Facebook in July 2011 in which he complained about a racially charged comment said in his presence. Syracuse forced Werenczak to complete anger-management counseling, a course on cultural diversity, and an essay on his personal growth in understanding issues of cultural diversity to earn a chance at readmittance to the school. Werenczak said that the experience was immensely stressful. Six months after the original posting on Facebook, FIRE took a public stance against Syracuse. The university readmitted Werenczak the next day.

The keynote speech by First Amendment attorney Robert Corn-Revere focused on public knowledge of the First Amendment and his work in the case Barnes v. Zaccari, another student free-expression case. In that case, Valdosta State University President Ronald Zaccari expelled student Hayden Barnes on May 7, 2007, for posing a "clear and present danger." Barnes had posted on Facebook a collage expressing his opposition to the construction of a new parking garage. After extensive efforts from FIRE, the University of Georgia System’s Board of Regents reversed the expulsion. Barnes is currently suing the board of regents for damages and attorney’s fees.

Corn-Revere also discussed in detail many of the results of the 2012 State of the First Amendment survey. He said that although he originally found the idea of measuring the strength of the First Amendment through a popular opinion survey "particularly pointless," he has come to appreciate it over the years as an indicator of public perception and understanding of the amendment.

Corn-Revere noted the ongoing "bad news" that only small percentages of respondents could name several basic freedoms, but also pointed to this year’s record-high percentage of respondents who could name freedom of speech (65%). He said he saw positive signs in the results of the "attitude" questions, such as the high percentages of respondents who believed that the First Amendment did not go too far, that the press should be a watchdog, and that citizens should be able to film police activities. These positive trends for the First Amendment extended to the Supreme Court, where Corn-Revere noted several important First Amendment victories including United States v. Alvarez, in which the justices struck down the Stolen Valor Act.

The Campus Freedom Network was established in 2006 to support FIRE’s mission by working with students to challenge illiberal or unconstitutional policies at institutions of higher learning. According to FIRE’s website,  the Campus Freedom Network "unites students, professors, and alumni who support free speech and individual rights on campus" and recently welcomed its 5,000th student member.