Proactivity and Partnerships: The Keys to Defending Free Speech
On December 1, the Washington Examiner hosted a two-panel discussion on campus free speech. The event co-sponsored by the Center to Protect Free Speech, The Fund for American Studies and Turning Point USA. In the second panel, Shelby Emmett, Director for the Center to Protect Free Speech, Dennis Prager, founder of Prager University and Marcus Fotenos of representing Turning Point USA, answered questions on how to understand and combat the anti-free speech environment at many universities.
Marcus Fotenos, a junior at the University of Colorado – Boulder shed a great deal of light on both challenges and triumph in fighting for campus free speech through his first-hand experiences. His campus administrators selectively enforced restrictive free speech codes and shutting down a free speech wall organized by a conservative student group but allowing an unsanctioned march by his liberal peers. As student body president Fotenos helped enact a student government resolution that encapsulates what free speech advocates are fighting for, that the First Amendment of the United States Constitution should apply to every square inch of the University of Colorado – Boulder.
Fotenos carried his work further, contributing to the drafting process of a Colorado bill and organizing several students to come down to the capitol to testify and share their stories of restricted first amendment rights. Shelby Emmett praised this work, saying that this is the kind of proactive, student-driven activism that is essential to the cause. She noted that students should be frequently consulting each other and talking to their state legislators; practices that are all too uncommon at present.
Emmett added that although the problem is large, the answer is not a big government approach with legislation that expands the state’s role in controlling campus life and intruding on the principles of academic freedom and institutional autonomy. For example, some bills mandate committees on free expression, hand-picked by government officials and usually without student representation. Schools also already have their own procedures for discipline, so legislation that mandates punishment for free speech violations will likely just result in multiple disciplinary systems that create more confusion for students and school officials alike, while also growing an already out-of-control administrative bureaucracy.
The ALEC model policy, Forming Open and Robust University Minds (FORUM) Act, takes a limited government approach and focuses on education more than other pieces of campus speech legislation. It requires the education of not just students but also the police, administrators and professors that are critical parts of every campus community.
“It’s very important to educate everybody because the free speech problem in this country isn’t just liberal students, it’s not just students generally, it’s the entire country. We have to understand that this is a cultural problem, not a party problem,” Emmett added. The panel moderator and Red Alert Politics editor Lauren Cooley agreed, noting that the fight to defend free speech has important legal and cultural facets.
Emmett, drawing from her experiences working with student groups at both the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and ALEC, reminded the audience about the ubiquitous potential of policy that defends these individual rights, encouraging right-leaning students and leaders to join forces with their liberal counterparts. Truly caring for free speech for all means that “At the end of the day you need to show them you’re able to be there for their rights even if you disagree.”
As the panel concluded, their final call to action was clear – use your voice, share your ideas, and stand up for the issues you believe in. Those that care about defending free speech must move from talking about it to actually practicing and promoting it. Those around you will recognize your courage, willingness to speak, and the quality of your ideas if you are persistent and work hard on a subject as fundamentally important as free speech.