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Five Student Leaders on Campus Free Expression—and the COVID-19 Disruption

College students have been derided as “snowflakes” who seek shelter from an open exchange of ideas. But a March report from a public flagship university underscores why that label shouldn’t stick. According to the report, a majority of liberal, moderate, and conservative students at that institution do want more opportunities to hear from and engage with their political opposites. Of course, thanks to a vocal minority, students who favor free expression have their work cut out for them: the same report shows that more than a quarter of students approve blocking a speaker with whom they disagree, and nearly a quarter of self-identified liberals and 3% of self-identified conservatives would not befriend someone with an opposing political orientation.

Knowing the challenges faced by student advocates for viewpoint diversity, BPC’s Campus Free Expression Project marked Constitution Day last September with a panel discussion featuring five student leaders. The students on this panel were dedicated to promoting viewpoint diversity and a culture of open exchange on their campuses. As spring semester comes to a close, we asked our panelists to look back and share what they learned, valued, and struggled with this year—for some, their last as an undergraduate.

These students had a productive year, to say the least. By working with peer organizations, collaborating with faculty and administrators, hosting events for the student body, and engaging in classroom discussion, they built up interest in and commitment to free expression values. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic throwing off short-term plans and disrupting commencements and time with friends, they remain optimistic about the impact they can have promoting open inquiry.

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Steps towards a free speech culture on campus…

University of Richmond junior Alec Greven believes that “the greatest challenge that I had  advancing free expression on campus has been convincing some members of my campus community that free speech and diversity are not at odds with each other.” To help show that free speech and inclusivity are compatible, “this year,” Greven said, “I was able to speak to the Faculty Senate at my school about free expression and open inquiry. The Faculty Senate coordinated with our school’s student government and the Office of the President to put together a town hall on free expression. In this forum we were able to hear a diversity of views from stakeholders at the University.” In addition, he worked closely with a professor who serves on the Free Expression Task Force, convened by the school’s president last year. “We share a lot of common interests and decided that it would be fulfilling to conduct research on the subject of free expression and open inquiry,” said Greven. Thanks to an external grant, Greven will pursue “research on speech in higher education and its relationship to democracy.”

Jimmy Thompson, a senior at Brown University, served this year as president of SPEAK, a coalition of students that gathers data about ideological diversity on campus and hosts debates for the student body. He met his two objectives this year: “one was to, for the third year in a row, publish another SPEAK report shedding light on the ideological breakdown of speakers invited to Brown,” said Thompson. The report found, as in past years, that “Brown University does not have nearly enough political diversity within its lecture series, with a clear lack of conservative voices.” His second objective was to launch a student newspaper, the Brown Gadfly. He especially valued time spent with three writers for the Gadfly as they wrote dueling articles on campus carry. Says Thompson: “I loved their dedication to publishing pieces that embodied more than just their opinions.” He and the Gadfly staff also organized a debate (postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic) to highlight their publication—“a great chance for our writers to present their work to the Brown community and further their development as critical thinkers.”

On engaging with classmates…

Daniel Acosta Rivas, a junior at American University and founder of the school’s chapter of Students for Free Expression, emphasized that changing free speech culture means motivating the student body: “…the danger to free speech is not from the administration but rather from the students themselves. Why is that? Well the ones who oppose free expression are, ironically, quite vocal about their beliefs. Meanwhile, the average student is not interested enough to argue against them.” This year, Acosta Rivas worked to turn classmates into free expression “activists.” So far, the reaction to SFE’s programs has been largely positive. “Throughout the semester one of the things that inspired me to keep up my work with SFE was how often I kept running into students that recognized me from previous events and would ask me when the next one was coming up. On many occasions I would be walking to class and get stopped by students I would have never guessed were interested in SFE who would talk to me about what a great time they had with our group in the past and were beyond excited for our next events.”

Claremont McKenna College senior Jennifer Gurev explained that her free speech experiences this year “have been more personal. I have sought to challenge myself to be open to new ideas.” In addition to transitioning leadership of her school’s chapter of the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge, where she served as co-president, to younger students, she took a class called “The University Blacklist.” Gurev described the class and how it impacted her views: “We read ten books from disinvited authors, think Milo Yiannopoulos, Laura Kipnis, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and David Horowitz—none of which I ever would have read outside of the class. Although my opinions on issues didn’t change, reading these authors opened up my eyes to the ways in which college students will inherently label thinkers as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ without actually taking the time to understand what it is they disagree with about that person’s argument.” For Gurev, free expression “does not require changing opinions, but rather opening up one’s mind to new ideas and assessing a thinker’s argument without preconceived judgement.”

BridgeUSA founding CEO and University of California, Berkeley senior Manu Meel reflected on the difficulty of overcoming student assumptions when it comes to free expression issues. According to Meel, “free speech has become almost a conservative idea and that should absolutely not be the case. I know a lot of progressives who also believe in free speech.” Several chapters of BridgeUSA reported that they “found it difficult to overtly say ‘we are fighting for free speech’ because they have been immediately typecast as one label or another.” But Meel argued that BridgeUSA is “fighting for [free speech] in a more adaptive, smarter way. …It’s important always to look at free speech not as an end, but as a means to something,” including decreased partisanship, stronger communities, and policies that inspire meaning and purpose in the next generation.

On being a student in the age of COVID-19…

Greven: “The world seemed to move very quickly and before I knew it the rest of my semester was canceled on campus. Unfortunately, this means that I will not be able to see many of my friends that are graduating and I will also be taking classes online.” His upcoming academic work will include “developing my honors thesis on the relationship between free speech and democracy.”

Thompson: “I’m pleasantly surprised at the moment. Online classes have given me more flexibility than ever before, and I have found the caliber of schooling holding steady.” As for his post-graduation future, he sees that “many exciting paths are out there. …Whatever and wherever I end up, I hope to stay close to chaotic, new, and challenging projects, and to always be on the edge of a frontier.”

Acosta Rivas: “It is definitely a stressful time, trying to balance new responsibility with trying to help my family while balancing work and school. I have always thought of being a student as my primary commitment since I started university, but that task has definitely taken a backseat in the current COVID-19 environment. While I am still completing assignments and attending remote classes… it is definitely not the main concern in my mind.”

Gurev: “Reading the email from my college’s president that students were not to return back to campus after spring break broke my heart into pieces. I wanted to… embrace my fellow classmates, celebrating all that we have shared together and mourning the loss of future time together.” But instead, “In 18 hours, I hastily said goodbye, packing haphazardly the contents of my room into boxes and driving away from life as I knew it.”

Meel: There is a “feeling of uncertainty” as graduates enter into “what was supposed to be one of the hottest job markets.” Nonetheless, Meel said that he “is pretty optimistic about things. There’s a feeling of hope” and new opportunities, including a project BridgeUSA is helping undertake: a National Commencement Day broadcast to the class of 2020. “We will continue to find ways to show the world glimmers of hope, kindness, and humor in what is a difficult time.”

By students, for students...

These five leaders show why students are essential in the effort to build and maintain a culture of free expression on college and university campuses. Their work to transcend political divides, promote diversity of thought, and encourage robust conversation has strengthened their undergraduate institutions as places of open exchange, and done much to contribute to the preparation of their peers as learners, citizens, and participants in a diverse global community. The adversity they faced in pursuit of free expression has given them both the confidence to face the challenges of our current moment—from widespread polarization to global pandemic—and the skills to effect positive change.

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