-merritt burch mortarboard graduation feat
Successful Student Plaintiff Shouts Out FIRE with Graduation Garb

By May 13, 2016

University of Hawaii-Hilo (UH) student Merritt Burch had a busy 2014. In January, she was prevented from handing out copies of the U.S. Constitution on campus. In April, she joined with her fellow student Anthony Vizzone to file a First Amendment lawsuit against UH as part of FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project. And in December, UH settled Merritt’s lawsuit, agreeing to pay $50,000 in attorneys’ fees and damages and—most importantly—to change UH policies system-wide. Because of Merritt’s brave decision to stand up for her right to speak out, she protected the First Amendment rights of 59,000 students across the state.

That’s why all of us here are very proud that when Merritt graduates tomorrow, she’ll tip her hat to FIRE—quite literally.

Burch, who will receive a degree in biology with a cellular and molecular biology concentration, will sport a mortarboard (pictured above) that she decorated with FIRE’s logo and the words “SHOUT FIRE.”

Free speech aficionados will also recognize Burch’s decoration as a tongue-in-cheek reference to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ opinion in the landmark case Schenck v. United States (1919). That case created the now-defunct “clear and present danger” test and made famous Holmes’ oft-misquoted statement that even the “most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.”

“I thought, hey, since we’re going to be in a crowded theater, why not have that on top of your mortarboard?” Burch said with a laugh, adding that she was using her graduation to reflect on her unique college experience.

“I think everybody just goes for the basic option of, like, ‘Class of 2016! Yay!,’” she said of most students’ mortarboards. “But I wanted to put FIRE on there because I thought it was really special.”

“Even though students can get pushed down during their college careers and told they can’t say things or do things, the fact that you can stand up and make a difference was really important to me,” Burch said.

Burch added that FIRE was instrumental in helping her realize her own agency. “FIRE taught me to be more confident in my actions and just being not afraid to stand up for what I believe in,” she said.

Burch will also be wearing another special little piece of history when she receives her diploma—one that happens to be relevant to her own journey fighting for free speech at UH.

“One of the campus administrators had said to us that ‘This isn’t really the ’60s anymore,’ and ‘people can’t really protest like that anymore,’”she said, referencing the facts of her Stand Up For Speech case. “My dad, a few years ago, got me a Free Speech Movement button from when they protested in Berkeley, and I’m actually going to be wearing that with my graduation cap.”

Next month, Burch will head to the South Dakota State University for a masters in biology specializing in maize genetics, on the path to a career as a plant scientist. Burch says a Ph.D might even be in her future.

One way or the other, it’s a future in which Burch expects she will “live and think more freely,” thanks to her experience standing up for speech as an undergraduate and to FIRE’s influence.

“Since I’m going straight back into academia, I think it will make me look more critically at the choices that I get to make and that I’m allowed to make on college campuses, and the rights people have when they go into college,” she said. “[Students] aren’t limited by their campuses and what campus administrators tell them to do. They have all the rights available to them under the Constitution.”

Congratulations, Merritt! We at FIRE can’t wait to see what you do next.

Schools: University of Hawaii at Hilo Cases: FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project University of Hawaii at Hilo – Stand Up For Speech Lawsuit