by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Rob Jenkins writes for the Martin Center about a recent event focusing on campus free speech.
In October, I attended the first-ever FIRE Faculty Conference. If you’re not familiar with FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), you should be—assuming you support free speech, open inquiry, and viewpoint diversity on college campuses.
Since 1999, FIRE has been on the front lines of the campus free speech battle, speaking out publicly whenever speech is unjustly curtailed, rating higher education institutions based on their speech codes, and defending students and faculty members who have found themselves under attack for exercising their First Amendment rights.
This first FIRE Faculty Conference was a smallish affair, only about 60 or so people. I think that’s mostly because organizers intentionally limited attendance through a competitive application process, not because so few academics are actually committed to free speech. I learned that FIRE received over 100 submissions in response to its call for papers, so that gives me hope.
If you assumed conference attendees must have been predominantly conservative, you would be wrong. In fact, it was by far the most heterodox group I have ever had the pleasure to associate with. While conservatives were well represented, so were liberals, progressives, and libertarians, as well as most religious traditions and all major academic disciplines.
Given that degree of intellectual diversity, the civil nature of the discourse was refreshing. No one was shouted down. No one had anything unkind to say to or about anyone else. There were disagreements, to be sure, but those were addressed in a professional, collegial manner, with both sides presenting their cases carefully and then listening respectfully to their opponents.