Widener Norris, our campus program fellow at the University of Georgia, is passionate about promoting free speech and open-mindedness at his college and beyond. Below, you can get to know this inspiring young person a little more—and discover the extraordinary impact that your support for AHA has.
AHA Foundation: Last year you took a summer class at UATX’s (aka the University of Austin) taught by our Founder Ayaan Hirsi Ali. What prompted you to take this course and what did you learn?
Widener Norris: Having listened to Bari Weiss’s podcast Honestly (now The Free Press) for about a year by the time I was in the fall of my senior year of high school, I was intrigued by her mention of the University of Austin’s Forbidden Courses Summer Program 2022. UATX seemed to strive after the same ideals Weiss upheld: open yet respectful dialogue, freedom of expression, and good-faith curiosity about the world around us.
When I saw Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s course Critical Thinking and Freedom of Expression, I wanted to sign up to learn more about how to examine my own beliefs and engage critically with others. I grew up in a somewhat ideologically homogeneous school environment (not an indictment of the school by any means—I loved my high school—just an observation), so I had limited experience engaging with people who saw the world differently than I did.
In Ayaan’s course, I had the chance to learn about and engage with topics like the nuclear family and the effects of religion on society, subjects people often shun in modern discourse. I understand why that is—lots of people come to these sometimes sensitive discussions in bad faith. However, at UATX, I found that most people there wanted to engage with these subjects in good faith—with the desire to examine their own beliefs in the pursuit of truth.
AHA Foundation: And how did you first hear about the Critical Thinking Fellowship (CTF)? What inspired you to apply?
Widener Norris: I heard about the Critical Thinking Fellowship from the AHA Foundation team member who acted as a teaching assistant for Ayaan’s class. She told me about the opportunity the program presented to bring renowned speakers to college campuses to engage with important topics like human rights and free expression, so I decided to apply going into the fall semester of my first year of college.
My hope in joining was to host events with speakers I admired and invite students at my home college to a discussion on fostering a culture of free expression and mutual respect.
AHA Foundation: And where are you on that journey?
Widener Norris: This spring, I hosted a webinar on hate speech, counterspeech, and the First Amendment with Nadine Strossen. I met her at a workshop she hosted at the Forbidden Courses program on ways to resist hateful speech and disinformation with free speech rather than censorship. Interested in her points and robust knowledge of the First Amendment, I organized a CTF webinar with her at my home college once I became a Critical Thinking Fellow.
It was an engaging and well-attended conversation, and the audience asked probing questions about why speech should be protected even when it deeply offends others. I enjoyed my time with Professor Strossen and look forward to similar events in the future.
AHA Foundation: What has been most rewarding in your CTF experience?
Widener Norris: Seeing my event with Nadine Strossen come to fruition after months of planning was more rewarding than I possibly could have expected. The logistics that go into hosting and spreading the word about even an online event are significant, and navigating rules about where you can post flyers on campus, etc. made things a bit challenging at times.
AHA Foundation: Is there a crisis of free speech on college campuses? If so, what is the solution? Have you personally been affected by the stifling atmosphere on campus?
Widener Norris: I personally have not encountered trouble regarding free speech on my college campus, and I have had many opportunities to engage with fellow students on a variety of topics without feeling like I need to whisper. While there are some flyer policies that made hanging advertisements about events difficult at times, the administration has been open to dialogue on the topic and clearly supports the freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment.
I cannot speak to other colleges, but I can say that I have been pleasantly surprised by my home university. To continue developing that spirit of open inquiry, I think people need to be intentional in engaging in good-faith conversations with people who think differently than they do.
People also need to realize that you don’t have to be friends only with people who view the world the same as you. Some of my best friends and I disagree on more things than I can count, and we use those differences as jumping-off points for meaningful conversation rather than roadblocks to friendship. No doubt there are obstacles to free speech on many campuses, and this has to be challenged, but I feel very lucky that my university is a relatively open and tolerant one.
AHA Foundation: You are also involved with the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), whose president Greg Lukianoff did a webinar with Ayaan in October. Tell us a bit about FIRE and your experience with it.
Widener Norris: I have attended three conferences with FIRE over the past year, and I have really enjoyed my experience with the organization. Their programs include ample time to dialogue with students from other universities and hear about events and programs they are coordinating. It is also very valuable to be able to talk to FIRE staff, who are experts on policy reform, fostering civil discourse on campus, and more.
AHA Foundation: Where are you in your college career now? What do you plan to do when you graduate?
Widener Norris: I am currently in my second year of college, pursuing a B.S. in biochemistry with a minor in Mandarin Chinese. After college, I am interested in attending law school but am keeping an open mind about career paths in the meantime.
AHA Foundation: How will you keep fighting for free speech in whatever you do next?
Widener Norris: I firmly believe that fostering a culture of open discourse comes from the individual level. Have conversations with people you disagree with. Be friends with people who see the world differently than you do. Don’t let political differences dictate your social circles. While this principle isn’t absolute, I’ve found it to be a helpful guiding idea during my time in college.
AHA Foundation: Would you recommend joining the CTF to other college students?
Widener Norris: I would recommend that anyone interested in advocating for human rights and fostering a sense of good-faith dialogue on their university campus consider joining the CTF program. The network of speakers, provision of funding for events, and support from AHA Foundation staff have made my experience extremely enjoyable and educational.
AHA Foundation: Do you have a message for our donors, whose generous support makes the work of the CTF, including the webinars hosted by you and others, possible?
Widener Norris: With the funding provided by donors to AHA Foundation, I was able to invite a world-renowned expert on free expression to speak to my university community. It is difficult to arrange such an experience without the funding donors provide, and I am grateful for their support.