FIRE Webinar — Free Speech Walls and Beyond: Promoting and Defending the First Amendment on Campus

If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.
“On Liberty” by John Stuart Mill, 1859

Today was a webinar by FIRE — The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. The topic was free speech walls, essentially putting up walls or huge sheets of paper to give students the opportunity to use their right of free speech. This can lead to discussions about free speech and how it gets infringed upon — including on college/university campuses.

While I am definitely not part of the envisioned target audience (neither in the US, at an American university, nor a student), I am interested in the topic. I suspect that similar attempts to limit freedom of speech might happen in my country (or perhaps they are already happening but I have not heard about them). I also was interested in seeing how they did the webinar.

The Webinar Itself

Frankly, the webinar could have been a prerecorded lecture video, giving that it was a presentation with a short introduction and some questions after the presentation by the same person. Perhaps I have missed something, but I wonder whether this would have been an opportunity to connect students who are interested in the topic. After all, there is strength in numbers (something which the presenter — Peter Bonilla, the director of the Individual Rights Defense Program — also mentioned). I hope they have recorded it and the video ends up on YouTube — perhaps the comments might bring some students together. There was also the issue of having to install GoToMeeting. When I registered for the webinar and got a personalized link and I thought the webinar would play on a website. This required download surprised me. I’m not paranoid, but having to install a program is inconvenient.

But these are minor issues and I really think that these webinars are a good idea — not only because you can build up a library of these videos for future reference. The whole concept reminds me a bit of the “It gets better” project by Dan Savage and his comment that he wanted to do something and suddenly realized that he could simply put videos online at YouTube. He did not have to ask anyone for permission to send a message of hope to teenagers who were at risk of committing suicide — neither parents, nor administrators, nor anyone else. I think these webinars can serve a similar purpose. As long as universities do not block their website it is a perfect way to distribute information (if they do block the website, this opens up other possibilities, and if the videos are on YouTube, it’s highly unlikely that they will ever be blocked). Not sure how successful they are at the moment, but this should be a workable way to reach students.

The Content

Peter Bonilla introduced FIRE and focused mainly on free speech walls. While they might look deceptively simple, as written, they put an abstract concept into practice and serve as an interesting learning experience. Not only what free speech is and issues like “hate speech”, “harassment”, and “threats”, but also by experiencing (and later talking about) the issues of getting the universities permission to put up a free speech wall, the role of “free speech zones”, “security deposits/insurance policies”, delays, etc.

Interesting comments were, among others:

  • You have to invest some planning in putting up a free speech wall — not only in placement, materials, etc., but also in getting the permission (well in advance). Especially indoors where it might affect the flow of the students. (Not sure if it was mentioned, but I’m guessing fire safety is a major issue here, which is kinda ironic.)
  • You have to be friendly with the administration (almost always good advice). But if they refer to some issues why something cannot be done, ask for the specifics (where it is written that …). Get to know the rules, the actual rules, not what some people think is allowed or not. And you need a lot of patience and persistence.
  • As with almost every critical issue — documentation is key. Communicate via eMail if possible and whenever you can do so, take photos and make videos of the work, the process, etc. One nice thing about the Internet and mobile media — it’s easy to make videos and document the process on a blog. Being public is an advantage.
  • If they want you to make a security deposit/insurance policy, find out whether they demand this only for your event. If so, then it’s not really free speech — that should be independent of the position of the speaker/event.
  • Free speech zones are usually unconstitutional and you can take legal action against them. Among others, that’s what FIRE seems to be good at.
  • Deal with long delays by writing them what you plan to do, ask them (politely) to get back to you until a certain day, if they do not, say you take this as indicator that they agree to it.

In short, the presentation argued of using the public campus for free speech, something that should be the hallmark of any university. Students (and faculty) should be able to discuss topics, take them apart, explore thoughts and perspectives and see where they lead. But I have the slight suspicion that this gets more and more difficult and buried under whines of people claiming to be offended (or saying that others might be offended), political correctness, and the fear to take any risks, to make any mistakes.

So, it was an interesting presentation, it got me thinking. BTW, the FIRE website contains some interesting postings if you are interested in these issues, and there are other webinars they offer — the next one is in December.