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On break from the burden of self-censorship

At the FIRE Student Network Conference, I experienced a ‘safe space’ for free speech.
FIRE's 2023 Student Network Conference

College students gather outside the Constitution Center during FIRE's 2023 Student Network Conference.

Justo Antonio Triana is a rising senior at Syracuse University and a FIRE summer intern.

There’s always something satisfying about coming to the FIRE Student Network Summer Conference in Philadelphia. There’s an unusual freshness in the air. Conversations are less shallow but more casual. Friendships develop faster. The “energy” is just different.

At first, I wondered why I felt so comfortable here, but I didn't have to wonder long: It was like I was on a long-awaited break.

A break from the burden of having to prove my innocence after making a slightly controversial comment. A break from being labeled as evil or stupid by people who interpret differing opinions in the worst possible way. A break from restricting what I think — and who I am — to fit in with those who don’t really care about my thoughts. 

This trip was a much-needed break from the pervasive burden of self-censorship.

The FIRE conference left us with a sense of optimism about the future. It helped us dispel the programmed fear of speaking our mind in front of others, and it served to remind us that we are not alone in trying to be who we really are.

It’s a beautiful thing to have a “safe space” for free speech, where sincere and civilized debate — which most colleges have forsaken — can flourish. This is perhaps why you find people from so many different academic disciplines and political ideologies in this group. In a place where you might expect to find mostly political science and pre-law students, I met many STEM, history, economics, and art majors. 

I believe the reason for this is that most people, regardless of their interests, thrive in an open-minded, nonjudgmental setting. And young people haven’t been getting that in college lately. 

Then, there are the friendships — or, better put, considering the city we’re in, the “brotherly love.” People who like free speech tend to be genuine. As a result, I tend to make more friends on a weekend trip to Philly than I do in a full semester at school. At FIRE’s conference, I can meet people my age who are truly open-minded: intelligent but intellectually humble, and not imbued with a sense of moral superiority. The thrill of speaking freely on any controversial topic without fear of being ostracized by my peers or punished by the administration, and the chance to convince and be convinced by people who argue in good faith and value open discourse, are sorely underrated.

Last year, after the conference was over, I spent seven hours talking with three friends I had met there the day before. We discussed topics including academic freedom, infrared telescopes, gender theory, nuclear energy, race and nationality, cultural differences, the limitations of free speech, electric cars, evolutionary psychology, colorblindness, black holes, Plato, the Great Migration, affirmative action, types of intelligences, and sexual practices of Ancient Greece. We also joked about how diverse our group was: a white American from the Southeast, a black American of Jamaican descent, an Iranian-American, and a Cuban. Given the topics we discussed and how fraught they can be, as well as how infused with identity politics our college campuses are, it was even more amazing that this group of young people from all over the map could sit together and speak freely.

Four college-aged students smiling
Justo (left) and four friends from the FIRE Student Network Conference

We had not gathered together because we were the stereotypically diverse members of some university’s YouTube ad, but because we saw each other as unique and interesting individuals — valuable not for our looks, but for the way we thought. Curiosity was the powerful force that brought us together, and we kept talking, debating, and laughing until 3 a.m. — when I had to rush to my place to pack my suitcase and catch my 5 a.m. train.

It’s been a year since that evening, and we still text each other on occasion.

In addition to the many meaningful new friendships we made, the FIRE conference left us with a sense of optimism about the future. It helped us dispel the programmed fear of speaking our mind in front of others, and it served to remind us that we are not alone in trying to be who we really are. 

Are you a college student interested in free speech advocacy? Visit FIRE’s “Opportunities for Students” page to see how you can get involved.

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