Emma Maple is a rising senior at Whitworth University and FIRE summer intern.
Manas Pandit is a rising junior at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a FIRE summer intern.
The weekend of July 21 through July 23 saw FIRE’s biggest ever annual Student Network Conference with 115 students attending. Around three-fourths of the attendees were new additions to FIRE’s ever-expanding network and helped make it the most impactful summer conference yet.
The conference began Friday night with a soirée hosted at the National Constitution Center (NCC). Greg Lukianoff, FIRE’s president and CEO, kicked off the night with a rousing speech about the importance of free expression.
FIRE was excited to host “Fifth Column” podcasters Michael Moynihan, former national correspondent for Vice News, and Kmele Foster, journalist and partner at Freethink, as keynote speakers for the conference. Joining them was Lara Bazelon, law professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law and outspoken advocate for due process rights. Lara was also the keynote speaker at last year’s summer conference where she received a standing ovation. Returning students and interns were thrilled to hear from her again.
In keeping with their typical podcast format, the “Fifth Column” podcasters’ keynote speech was a free-flowing conversation between Lara and the hosts. Students loved seeing this non-traditional keynote address, and one student said the keynote was “absolutely amazing [and] a great change of pace.”
Another student said the keynote speech inspired them to start their own free speech podcast on campus.
The night ended with students networking and discussing their passion for free speech before returning to their hotels to prepare for their next full day.
Day 2: From ‘Eternally Radical Idea’ to ‘Barbie v. Oppenheimer’
Saturday morning saw FIRE General Counsel Ronnie London lead a session giving students a basic overview of the state of campus speech law. The session covered the distinction between free speech rights at private universities and those at public universities, as well as the validity of “time, place and manner” restrictions that are often imposed on speech at public universities.
Next, Greg took the stage to discuss “The Eternally Radical Idea,” exploring the philosophical and tangible benefits of free speech. He spoke about the rarity of free speech throughout history and the immense value that free speech has when allowed to flourish, enabling not only tolerance of dissent, but also true engagement with it.
Students thoroughly enjoyed the talk. One called for “more Greg speaking time!” And another called Greg’s speech the most valuable part of her conference experience.
Following this, FIRE’s interns led a “Barbie v. Oppenheimer”-themed presentation on “Protected & Unprotected Speech,” drawing on current cultural trends and taking advantage of the popularity of the two movies, both of which entered theaters the weekend of the conference. One attendee said the presentation’s “real and funny examples helped me learn what kind of speech is legal.”
After a quick lunch break, conference programming resumed at the NCC with multiple breakout sessions led by FIRE staffers. Students had the opportunity to attend up to three sessions covering a wide range of subjects from the transnational impacts of censorship on American university campuses, and methods for student journalists and activists to work with college administrators.
After a two-hour break, the “Fifth Column” podcasters once again took the stage and led a Q&A session with students, discussing the campus free speech environment from students’ points of view. They provided advice for engaging with and promoting the ideals of free expression on the modern college campus, and they discussed a variety of related topics such as the state of the modern media ecosystem and its relation to the campus political environment. During the session, students shared their own perspectives; one student shared his remarkable experience of a professor apologizing profusely to him after an in-class disagreement over course material. The Q&A was followed by dinner.
After conversing with other conference attendees and the “Fifth Column” hosts, students began to head home to rest before the final day of the conference.
Day 3: How to be a free speech defender
To wake the students up on day three, the FIRE summer interns led a rousing game of “Jeopardy!” challenging students’ knowledge of free speech topics. Interns Dylynn Lasky and Justin Crosby, “Jeopardy!” emcees, kept the room laughing and might have outshone even Alex Trebek as game show hosts.
Bob Corn-Revere, FIRE’s chief counsel, then took the students on a journey through a censor’s mind, examining why so many censors think they have the moral high ground. His presentation spanned American history and showed that some of the “new” arguments for censorship have been around for a while. Many students thought this talk was the most impactful aspect of the conference.
Next was a hands-on event led by Elizabeth Stanley, who is on FIRE’s Engagement and Mobilization team. Students heard a fictional story of campus censorship and then brainstormed a plan of action to fight for freedom of speech.
Conference attendees then listened to a student panel featuring some of FIRE’s most dedicated student-activists including Dylynn Lasky, FIRE summer intern and co-founder of the John Stuart Mill Forum at the College of Wooster; Travis Haskin, co-founder of the Student Advocate’s Office at the University of California, Davis; and Cole Daigneault, FIRE campus scholar at the University of Washington. These three students offered practical free speech advice and inspiration for how to go deeper with FIRE.
Molly Nocheck, FIRE’s vice president of student outreach, wrapped up the event by encouraging students to carry what they’ve learned from the conference back to their college campuses and use it to spark meaningful conversations and change.
As the feedback forms rolled in post-conference, students expressed their appreciation for all parts of the weekend. Many of them enjoyed learning more about the intricacies of free speech, networking with like-minded students, and experiencing diversity of thought. Many students also expressed plans for how they could enact cultural and political change for freedom of speech on their campuses.
To keep an eye on upcoming FIRE conferences and events, visit FIRE’s website.