Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Monday, December 10, 2018

Students for Free Expression aims to convince students that free speech is nonpartisan

New student group holds open debates on policy issues

Students for Free Expression aims to convince students that free speech is nonpartisan

A student speaks at the "Is Health Care a Right?" debate hosted by Students for Free Expression on Oct. 4. 

Students for Free Expression (SFE), a new student organization promoting open discourse on campus, is on a mission to bring speakers from all corners of the political spectrum to engage with students.

Sophomores Daniel Acosta Rivas and Kailash Fox co-founded the organization as freshmen after discovering AU’s “red light” rating from the free speech organization Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). AU’s standing with FIRE has since improved to “yellow-light,” which indicates that the University has “at least one ambiguous policy that too easily encourages administrative abuse and arbitrary application” of free speech codes, according to FIRE.

On Oct. 4, SFE held their first event of the year, a student-led debate on whether health care is a right. Partnering with Better Angels, a depolarization organization, the debate took a parliamentary format, allowing any student in attendance to chime in. According to Acosta Rivas, the event far exceeded attendance expectations, with approximately 75 students in attendance, fueled by an assignment for AUx, the University’s mandatory course for first-year students.

Acosta Rivas was thrilled by the AUx assignment, which asked students to go to an event outside their comfort zone.

“A lot of people equate things that are out of their comfort zone with being dangerous, but exposing yourself to something uncomfortable can help you learn,” Acosta Rivas said.

Freshman Yardena Gerwin, who attended the event, was awed by the rigorous discussion on display.

“[It was] amazing to see students speak so eloquently on what defined the issue to them, be it the financial, moral or logistical side of the issue,” Gerwin said.

From SFE’s perspective, Gerwin was a major success story. She attended the event assuming she would be in an audience role, but found herself in the front of the room, sharing that she “would not be alive had it not been for my health insurance and care.”

Unlike other “liberty-based” groups on campus, Acosta Rivas insists that SFE is “strictly non-partisan.”

“People jump to assume that organizations like this are right-wing,” Acosta Rivas said. “We want to take back the idea that free speech is a partisan idea.”

Professor Thomas Merrill, the group’s faculty advisor, found himself involved with the organization through his work with the Political Theory Institute at AU. Merrill is a fervent advocate for the debate style used at the event.

“We all come to these conversations with a framework of core values and judge evidence through this framework, so without discussing our core values, we may never see them as frameworks to begin with,” Merrill said.

SFE has found many allies on campus, including School of Public Affairs professor Lara Schwartz and her Civil Discourse Project. Schwartz met with Acosta Rivas when the organization was founded and agreed to host SFE students on the Civil Discourse Project’s “Real Talk” blog.

“The aspirations and possibilities of speech, and not the outer limits of what's allowed, are what interest me,” Schwartz said.

The group will continue to promote dialogue on AU’s campus without taking on political views of its own, Acosta Rivas said.

“Debate isn’t about winning, it’s about exchanging ideas,” he said.

aweinstein@theeagleonline.com


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