"Let Them Speak" campus activism toolkit winners Daniel Acosta Rivas and Kai Fox handing out FIRE resources at American University.

Students took action in the 2017-18 school year through FIRE’s new activism toolkit program

By June 12, 2018

The 2017–18 academic year kicked off with a new FIRE initiative aimed at challenging students to take action on campus. Students at colleges and universities across the country took on that challenge by participating in two activism toolkit campaigns this school year, and they showed a tremendous commitment to defending students’ rights and the principles of free speech on campus. To honor their efforts, with each campaign, three prizes were awarded to students who facilitated the best-executed campus initiatives.

The fall toolkit, “Speak Truth to Power,” challenged students in three ways: to collaborate with diverse groups and build coalitions on campus to organize initiatives that stress the importance of free speech, to work toward improving policies that are detrimental to students’ fundamental rights and/or promised rights on campus, and to educate their campus communities about how free speech protects everyone’s rights to argue for change.

The winners of the “Speak Truth to Power” campaign were: Samuel Foer, a student at the University of Rhode Island; Joseph Wolf and Katie Raymond from the University at Buffalo; and Rachna Shah from Dartmouth College.

First Place: Samuel Foer, University of Rhode Island

As founder and president of the University of Rhode Island’s BridgeUSA chapter, Samuel Foer led a multidimensional campaign to educate students at his university about the importance of free speech rights and URI’s free speech policies, built coalitions to execute a “Reclaim Free Speech URI” campaign, and made efforts to improve URI’s policies.

Second Place: Joseph Wolf and Katie Raymond, University at Buffalo

Together, Joe and Katie founded the Buffalo Civil Liberties Union, built a coalition to host a free speech panel, worked with top administrators and FIRE staff toward speech code reform, and collaborated with the student newspaper The Spectrum to amplify BCLU’s goals of allowing students to have active representation during campus judicial proceedings.

Third Place: Rachna Shah, Dartmouth College

As president of the Dartmouth Open Campus Coalition, Rachna worked to promote a platform that encourages civil exchange and discourse on campus by hosting Nadine Strossen, former president of the ACLU; organized discussion dinners on both campus-wide and national-level policy issues; co-sponsored debates; and produced a podcast dedicated to free speech.

The spring 2018 campus activism toolkit switched gears to focus on campus issues related to disinvitations, shout-downs, and the censoring of invited speakers. The “Let Them Speak” toolkit challenged students to take proactive and reactive steps to protect free speech for everyone on campus, including the speaker’s right to speak, the audience’s right to listen, and students’ right to react with speech of their own; and to use their voices to foster a campus culture that celebrates and embraces robust intellectual discourse and eschews censorship.

Daniel Acosta Rivas and Kai Fox, students at American University, were awarded first place; University of California, Berkeley student Celine Bookin earned second place; and third place was shared by Matthew Foldi, a student at University of Chicago, and Natalie Le, from Harvard University.

First Place: Daniel Acosta Rivas and Kai Fox, American University

Through a grassroots initiative involving canvassing, tabling, and passing out FIRE resources, Daniel and Kai connected with students one-on-one in a bid to change the hearts and minds on campus. They also hosted a series of successful events, including an event featuring Jonathan Rauch, which was attended by students from across the country and ideological spectrum. Later, Daniel and Kai hosted a diverse panel of speakers to explore campus free speech issues and demonstrate to the student body that freedom of expression is a nonpartisan issue.

Second Place: Celine Bookin, University of California, Berkeley

Through her activism, Celine worked to show the importance of free speech for everyone on campus, no matter the ideology or viewpoint. By hosting a debate between Berkeley Conservatives and Cal Berkeley Democrats, facilitating multiple policy discussion meetings with students from across the political spectrum, and hosting two tremendously successful speaking events which were attended by conservative and liberal students alike, Celine did just that.

Third Place: Matthew Foldi, University of Chicago, and Natalie Le, Harvard University   

Matthew hosted former FIRE president David French to speak about issues related to free speech at the University of Chicago. He also co-hosted a bipartisan political “speed dating” event with the College Democrats and the University of Chicago Democracy Initiative. Matthew reported that his efforts resulted in “cross-partisan dialogue,” and “a greater understanding of where College Republicans come from.”

At Harvard, Natalie’s activism focused on hosting speakers whose views are outside what is normally discussed on her campus. One of the events she hosted included a panel with Jacob Mchangama, Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, Flemming Rose, and Mustafa Akyol, to discuss how free speech plays a central role for minorities in the fight against injustice. Natalie was happy to report to us that “all students, including those who disagreed with the speakers’ theses, listened and engaged with the speakers peacefully.”

We want to thank all of the students who participated in FIRE’s “Speak Truth to Power” and “Let Them Speak” campus activism campaigns. We are inspired by the hard work of everyone who participated in this year’s toolkit campaigns and the incredible commitment they have demonstrated towards the promotion and celebration of free expression and open dialogue on campus. We have no doubt that students will keep up the tremendous work for future activism campaigns!

Students eager to take action on campus can head over to the “Take Action” page of the FIRE Student Network website, which hosts all of our activism toolkits and other ways to get involved. We are excited to share that the fall 2018 activism toolkit will be revealed at the FIRE Student Network Summer Conference. The application deadline for the conference is Friday, June 15, so apply to attend the conference today!