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Practice like you’re talking to a Senator – you just might do it for real

Isaac Smith

I came into law school with a love of free speech and due process. That passion, which will fuel my legal career, began at Ohio University as an undergraduate student, and has taken me as far as the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary.

When I was in college, I was the Associate Director of a student organization called Students Defending Students. Originally founded in 1976, SDS helps OU students who are accused of violating the school’s Student Code of Conduct. The organization has been at odds with the university administration since the beginning, but remains committed to ensuring that students are informed of their rights and options through the process, and that those rights are respected.

I never would have imagined that my involvement with SDS would have led me to testify in front of the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary. But there I was, early in the morning of June 20, 2017, shaking Senator Chuck Grassley’s hand as he came up to introduce himself to all the participants. I sat directly across from him, waiting for my turn to share my story about experience with censorship.

Watch Isaac’s statements at 43:25 of this C-SPAN video.

SDS had a history of producing t-shirts at the end of every year to celebrate graduating seniors and to raise awareness of the organization. For example, our 2012 shirts said, “Who You Gonna Call,” with the O’s made up by handcuffs. But our 2013 shirts proved to be unexpectedly controversial. They included our founding slogan, a sophomoric play on words: “We get you off for free.”

We wore those shirts at the Student Involvement Fair, a gathering of registered organizations on OU’s College Green, where incoming first-year students can learn about activities on campus. We were there to let freshmen know the organization existed and to recruit new members. I sent a picture via the official SDS Twitter account of one of our members wearing the shirts.

As the Student Involvement Fair was ending, a campus administrator came up to me and let me know that she did not want to see us wearing the shirts again. We were told that they “objectified women,” and, in a total head-scratcher, that they “promoted prostitution.” This language was concerning to us, because as advisers about the student conduct process, we knew the Student Code of Conduct inside and out. And we knew that there was a charge called “Mental or Bodily Harm to Others” that forbade “any act which demeans, degrades, disgraces any individual.” That language was so broad that our shirts—unquestionably protected by the First Amendment—could have fallen under its ambit. We could have risked punishment for wearing them—all the way up to expulsion. And we knew that OU has a history of punishing protected speech.

So, I reached out to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, a non-partisan, non-profit organization that defends the First Amendment rights of students at colleges and universities. With the assistance of FIRE and attorneys at Davis Wright Tremaine, I sued Ohio University, alleging violations of my First and Fourteenth Amendment rights as a result of its overbroad Code of Conduct. Within only a few months, the lawsuit settled favorably, with a change in the Code of Conduct that respected and protected free speech.

The experience of filing the lawsuit cemented my desire to go to law school. I was curious about how every aspect of the process worked, from serving opposing parties to seeing the answer to the complaint to the eventual settlement negotiations. Going through that process also turned into a powerful personal statement, and between telling the story to newspapers and at conferences hosted by FIRE, I’ve explained what happened dozens of times.

What did all that amount to? Practice. I had unintentionally practiced the testimony I would deliver in front of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary in front of hundreds of people. Even though I was speaking to Senators Ted Cruz, Chuck Grassley, and Diane Feinstein, among others, I was telling a story that I had told many, many times. That allowed me to relax. I wasn’t reading from an unfamiliar script or saying things I had only gone over in my head; rather, I was taking all the practicing I had done and putting it to good use.

Of course, that same principle applies to success in law school. You go through readings and outlines until you’re comfortable with the material. That way, when you find yourself in the high-stress environment of law school exams, you feel at least slightly ready. And when you’re being cold-called during class, you know that it will actually prepare you to calmly answer questions in other high-stress situations. I don’t think I would have been as comfortable answering a question from Senator Cruz without that initially terrifying experience of being cold-called in law school.

Practice and passion will take you far. It is no secret to those who know me that I am passionate about the First Amendment. Suing OU is not something I undertook lightly, but the experience was exhilarating and has remained rewarding and relevant. Through the law, you can accomplish big changes that may otherwise seem impossible. That passion led me to law school, it led me to help brief a successful criminal defense case for OU students who were illegally arrested for peaceful protest, and it led me to an internship with FIRE. I can’t wait to see where it takes me next.

Isaac Smith Isaac Smith is a rising 3L at the University of Cincinnati College of Law and a Master of Arts candidate in Political Science. He is currently working as a legal intern at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).