Pro-free speech graduate students at Emory Law prevail 

After seven months of viewpoint-based rejection for their civil discourse organization, students celebrate their group’s official recognition with a campuswide event featuring professor and former ACLU President Nadine Strossen.

May 3, 2022

On April 5, the Emory Free Speech Forum hosted professor Nadine Strossen to talk to students at Emory University about the importance of free speech in a legal education. It was the group’s inaugural event, held about a week after they were approved as an official Emory University organization, which happened after months of advocacy by FIRE calling on Emory’s student bar association to end its viewpoint-based rejection of the group’s application to become an official student organization. 

The conversation between Emory law professor Fred Smith and Strossen and the subsequent Q&A sparked conversations about why free speech is crucial to upholding human rights, why we must learn to fight speech with more speech, disinviting speakers, deplatforming, and social media. 

“To engage in criticism, even harsh, even unfair, I would say even defamatory criticism, is not only not violating freedom of speech, it’s exercising freedom of speech,” Strossen said in her discussion with Smith, “and the Supreme Court has said, I think correctly, if there’s an idea that you disagree with, the appropriate response is not to censor it but to answer it, to critique it, and that is usually called counter speech, and not only do I not oppose it, I champion it.”

Emory Law Professor Fred Smith and former ACLU President Nadine Strossen.Conversation between Emory Law Professor Fred Smith (left) and former ACLU President Nadine Strossen (right) at Emory Free Speech event. (Photo courtesy Emory Free Speech Forum)

The EFSF, a student-run civil discourse group that seeks to create space on Emory’s campus for civil and open dialogue about controversial topics, would know a thing or two about countering speech with speech. The group’s founders were inspired to begin the organization after staging a counter-protest in response to a student walkout. But obtaining official recognition for their group would prove to be an uphill battle, facing rejection after rejection from Emory’s Student Bar Association in the fall of 2021. Undeterred by the setbacks, the Emory Free Speech Forum is finally an officially recognized student group. Here’s how they fought for civil discourse at Emory, and won. 

Fighting speech with more speech: Counter-protest sparks inspiration for the EFSF

EFSF was founded by four students at Emory University School of Law: President Michael Reed-Price, Vice President for Engagement Kameron St Clare, Vice President for Social Discourse MacKinnon Westraad, and Treasurer Cory Conly. They were initially inspired to begin the organization after a walk-out protest in September 2021 by students and faculty at Emory Law protesting the use of slurs in the classroom. The protest was precipitated by associate professor Alexander Volokh’s use of the term “fag” during a lecture when quoting the respondents in the Supreme Court case Snyder v. Phelps. Volokh argued that he had a “pedagogical purpose for using the slur,” according to a report in The Emory Wheel student newspaper, because he wanted to prepare his students to talk about slurs when discussing court cases in the future. Nevertheless, Volokh’s use of the word sparked a campuswide anti-slur walkout.  

The EFSF’s founders held a counter-protest which gave anyone who disagreed with the walk-out the opportunity to sit with them in a classroom and not participate. A few of the students who attended the counter-protest approached the EFSF’s founders afterwards to share their experiences with the lack of open discourse at Emory.

The EFSF leaders hope that their group can open up that space for “debates and discussion” once again.

“One of the students got quite emotional about his experience here and how alienating it has been,” Kameron St Clare said. “He also referenced classmates of his that do not come to campus except to go to class and get to the library because they feel so unwelcome by their classmates because they voiced dissenting opinions about things. They don’t even try anymore.”

While the counter-protest earned the EFSF’s founders a lot of criticism from their fellow students, it inspired them to create a group that promoted open discourse. 

They applied to the SBA for a temporary charter for the EFSF in October and then again in November, and were both times rejected. Still, they persevered. Throughout the period of rejections in the fall, the EFSF held meetings and grew its membership. As an unofficial student organization at Emory, the group could not reserve meeting space on campus, so the EFSF’s civil discourse meetings took the form of informal gatherings at local restaurants and bars. 

Keeping conversations civil

The theory behind the EFSF’s group discussions “is to destigmatize important controversial topics,” Michael Reed-Price said. “Let’s talk about these, let’s not get too worked up about them, but let’s create a dialogue.” 

The EFSF leaders’ method of enabling open discussion has emphasized a relaxed and casual atmosphere. They found that the casual surroundings of a restaurant or bar have helped to “facilitate a more collegial experience,” Kameron explained. The setting, coupled with the group’s relaxed moderation style led by MacKinnon Westraad, have worked to establish and maintain civility in discussion about hot topics. 

Emory Free Speech Forum President Michael Reed-PriceEmory Free Speech Forum President Michael Reed-Price delivers remarks at the first official meeting of the club's first official event. (Photo courtesy Emory Free Speech Forum)

Now that Emory has recognized it as a student organization, the EFSF will be able to advertise and reserve space on campus. Michael and Kameron hope to see their group’s civil discourses tangibly benefit from their new status as an official student group. In the future, they hope to invite Emory professors to some of the discussions to “mediate a conversation that might be a little bit off the beaten path but that they’re interested in and they’re well versed in,” Michael said. The idea behind these invitations will be to enhance the depth of the conversations by including these professors’ expertise in the discussion. 

Now that they can reserve space on campus for larger, more structured conversations, Michael and Kameron also hope to use resources from FIRE’s Let’s Talk program to lead and moderate discourse meetings as attendance increases.

Emory Free Speech Forum acquires widespread visibility on campus 

The EFSF’s recent April 5 event featuring professor Nadine Strossen earned the organization campuswide attention. It occurred only about a week after the university recognized them as an official organization and yet was very well attended. The audience included EFSF group members and supporters, undergraduates from Emory’s political science department, students involved in Emory’s Communications and Marketing department, and even students from Georgia State University Law School. “I will say [that] most of the faces in the audience were faces I did not recognize,” Michael said. 

The EFSF leaders were glad to see that some students who had previously expressed disagreement with the EFSF’s mission attended the event. “I think that’s sort of exactly what we want to model — that you can have disagreements but that doesn’t mean you have to be disagreeable,” Kameron said. 

Emory Law dean Mary Anne Bobinski kicked off the event by introducing professor Nadine Strossen. The dean’s presence at the event projected the message to the Emory campus community that the EFSF is “not the crazy off-campus free speech club,” Michael said. “I think that . . . people didn’t want to come around to us because that was what people thought. But now they see this legitimate organization doing big things, this conversation was interesting, and the Dean was there, [who is] one of the most well-respected constitutional law professors.”

Much of what Strossen spoke about in her conversation with professor Fred Smith could be applied to the EFSF’s own struggle to gain recognition and, more largely, to the problem of the intense social punishment that students voicing dissenting views experience and which has led to a complete lack of open discourse at Emory.

“I think to me,” Strossen said, “the term cancel culture is referring to that extremely harsh disproportionate payback that results in the massive self-censorship that every public opinion survey shows that all of us are engaging in all across the ideological spectrum, including on campus where we would hope that debates and discussion would be most robust.” 

The EFSF leaders hope that their group can open up that space for “debates and discussion” once again. 

The EFSF, next year and beyond

Michael’s big-picture goal for the EFSF is to instigate a pro-free speech cultural shift on Emory’s campus. “Abstractly, I think the goal is to take the tension around free speech and cool it off,” Michael said. 

Kameron hopes the EFSF will expand the kinds of events that they host to include networking socials between their group’s members and alumni attorneys in the Atlanta area. He said that he has been warned in the past that his free speech advocacy might jeopardize his future as a lawyer, but he believes that events enabling students to network with practicing pro-free speech attorneys might help alleviate concerns EFSF members might have about how their free speech advocacy could affect their future careers. 

Kameron closed our conversation with some advice for folks in workplace or university environments “where free speech is discouraged.” He said, “I hope that they are starting to realize that (1) [free speech is] laudable enough to actually stand up for, and (2) standing up for it doesn’t mean you get destroyed. You need to stand up for it, be respectful about it, make good arguments, and defend your and everyone else’s rights and find other people who agree with that and you’ll be okay.”


Students who would like to learn more about FIRE’s Let’s Talk program should check out the resources online and get in touch with us with any questions by emailing students@thefire.org.


Schools:  Emory University

Cases:  Emory University School of Law: Student Government Denied Recognition to Free Speech Group Because of Opposition to Mission and Purpose