This month, the FIRE Student Spotlight is on Levi Gourdie, a student activist who was instrumental in effecting speech code reform at Butler University. Levi, a junior majoring in history with a minor in political science, is the president of Butler University Young Americans for Liberty and a Campus Coordinator with Students For Liberty. When Levi heard about the “free speech zone” at Butler, he knew he had to get involved. Levi worked with FIRE and a coalition of free speech-loving students and faculty to eliminate the restrictive free speech zone and hold Butler to its promise to uphold “freedom of expression [as the] core of intellectual pursuit.”
The FIRE Student Network’s Student Spotlight celebrates Levi and the Butler University Young Americans for Liberty for all they do on campus to promote free speech and student rights. As always, FIRE stands ready to help students and student groups from across the ideological spectrum advocate on behalf of civil liberties and free speech on their campuses.
FIRE asked Levi to share his experience defending student rights at Butler:
What inspired you to promote free speech on campus?
It was brought to my attention that there was a “free speech zone” in the Norris Plaza area of campus. While I may disapprove of the speech some groups have attempted to engage in, that should not discount their right to say it. I believe that a mature freedom protects the rights of all people, especially those with ideas we find unpopular.
What steps did you take to improve Butler's speech codes?
I met with allied student organizations (most notably the feminist/social justice group on campus, Demia) to start with. We decided to contact FIRE to see what they would have to help us out. We decided the best course of action was to meet with faculty who were likely sympathetic and had them raise concerns with the administration. This prompted the administration to hold hearings on the issue that were open to the public, which we all attended to give our opinions despite the 8 AM start time.
What was the response from administrators, professors and other students?
The response varied. Faculty, for the most part, were outraged that Butler would consider doing this, while students were upset but laid back. Many of them would have liked to see the policy changed, but did not really have a lot more to do or say about it. Others felt so long as there was a "free speech zone" that it didn't matter. The administration was hesitant at first, but after seeing significant faculty opposition and our attendance at meetings, they reassured us that the policy would change after this year.
What has been the most difficult part of challenging your school's policies? The most exciting?
The most difficult part of changing the policy was setting an agenda and forming a coalition, because it was hard to form a consensus on the best method of action and what specifically we should do. The most exciting was, obviously, having the speech ban lifted.
What advice do you have for other students who want to promote student rights on their campuses?
My biggest advice would be to not be afraid to tread on toes. No matter the shade of your ideology or the type of campus, there will be allies you can find between faculty and the student bodies. While our limited action was enough to change policy, that is rarely the case. I would recommend that students look into more extensive activism that includes speakers, free speech events, etc. A campus uproar over something like speech is not the kind of publicity that a school wants.
What advice do you have for students at private schools who wish to improve the state of free speech on their campus?
On private campuses, I would make sure that your activism is even more aggressive. You want to make sure that you are seen and heard, while also remaining respectful and not giving the university any reason to discount you. Finally, I would check with the FIRE staff whether or not the university has a contract duty to respect free speech, similar to the case with Butler.