At the Center for Inquiry, we have always known that if we are to achieve our mission of a secular society based on science, reason, free inquiry, and humanist values, we must engage young skeptics, freethinkers, and atheists now and help them become the leaders of tomorrow.
Our CFI/On Campus program does exactly that. Since 1996, CFI/On Campus (originally the Campus Freethought Alliance) has provided a variety of resources to secular, skeptic, humanist, and atheist student groups, including speakers, event funds, literature, promotion, and leadership training. The response has been tremendous. As of this writing, CFI/On Campus now services 196 groups, and more students are joining every semester.
The future of campus freethought is promising, but even more encouraging is the way these “future leaders” have already started to lead now—and there is no more striking example of this than the way our campus groups rose to the challenge of CFI’s Campaign for Free Expression.
As an organization normally occupied with speaking out for church-state separation, quality science education, evidence-based policies, and secular ethics, it sometimes becomes necessary to return to first principles and speak out for the basic right to speak out. This need was highlighted last year when several nations started to resurrect blasphemy laws, literally replacing a person’s vital right to speak freely with another person’s dubious “right” to not be offended.
Such an egregious breach of principle naturally caused outrage among freethinkers, secular humanists, and other nonbelievers. After all, as a minority that offends others by our mere existence, we depend upon the ability to speak freely in order to explain, defend, and promote our worldview—and ourselves—on an almost daily basis.
Accordingly, CFI and the Council for Secular Humanism launched the Campaign for Free Expression to focus attention on the significance of free speech and to remind the public that “ideas don’t need rights; people do.” The call went out to all CFI branches and On Campus groups to put on programs and activities about the importance of free expression and the primary role it plays in a free society. We weren’t disappointed. Some branches held lectures on the First Amendment while others featured talks about censorship, but the most influential events revolved around Blasphemy Day International, a volunteer-coordinated campaign administered by CFI to sound the alarm about the increase in blasphemy laws and to kick-start a dialogue about the fundamental necessity of free speech.
The general public’s reaction to Blasphemy Day was strong and predictable: most people were offended. But this response only further emphasized the need for Blasphemy Day. After all, when most members of society would rather give up their ability to speak freely than risk offending someone—when people are more offended by a blasphemy day than by blasphemy laws—we must grab their attention, we must shake them up and launch the ever-important discussion about the rights that are necessary to maintain a free society.
As you are about to read in the articles by Trevor Boeckmann and Megan Littlejohn, our CFI/On Campus groups took the lead in this effort, not only rising to defend their own speech but the speech of those with whom they disagree, a sure sign that our most important principles are understood by On Campus leaders today and will be advanced when they become society’s leaders tomorrow.
Fortunately, CFI/On Campus leaders aren’t the only ones paying attention to free speech and censorship issues. For more than a decade, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has been protecting freedom of expression and other basic rights on campus by monitoring university “speech codes” and assisting students and faculty who have been harmed by censorship. FIRE’s Greg Lukianoff and Will Creeley join us to write about some of their most egregious cases—further evidence that the principle of free speech is still widely misunderstood and undervalued even at our most respected universities and colleges. This special section also includes an essay first published in 1975 by Free Inquiry founder Paul Kurtz in which he described his vision of higher education that is not only liberal but “liberating.”
Special thanks to Debbie Goddard, Nathan Bupp, and David Koepsell for their assistance in assembling this special section —Eds.