When Will Creeley (BA ‘03) became a lawyer, his goal was “to protect those folks who wanted to speak their minds.” At the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) in Philadelphia, where Creeley is the director of legal and public advocacy, that’s exactly what he does, working to protect free speech on campus, including “students and faculty who are activists or outspoken, or merely cranky,” as he put it.
The son of the poet Robert Creeley, who died in 2005, Will Creeley was attuned to the power and importance of words growing up in Buffalo, N.Y. “I wanted to do public interest law, and I wanted to be able to interact with the powers that be in their own language,” he said.
Creeley started at NYU in the College of Arts and Science, but coming from a small public high school, he found the classes during his first year overwhelmingly large. “I was thrilled to find Gallatin,” he said. “All of a sudden, everything made sense. It was just a fantastic development for me. New York opened up, the world of ideas opened up, and it was all attributable to Gallatin.”
His colloquium was on political memory and the burden of history, a topic that involved a mix of philosophy, critical theory, history and English literature. Creeley kept busy at Gallatin outside of his academic work as well: He was on the student council, co-founded a chapter of the Green Party, served as a student senator and spoke at Gallatin’s graduation ceremony as well as the University commencement. His happy experience at Gallatin influenced his sister, Hannah Creeley (BA ’05), to follow him to the School.
NYU Law School followed, and then an internship with FIRE in the summer after his first year of law school. “I realized this was the work I had imagined myself doing,” he recalled.
Among the cases that Creeley has worked on for FIRE is the case of Hayden Barnes, a student at Valdosta State University in Georgia, who had protested, via flyers and emails detailing his environmental concerns, the university’s plan to use $30 million in student fees to construct two parking garages on campus. He also posted a collage on Facebook that included pictures of Ronald Zaccari, president of the university, a parking deck, and the caption “S.A.V.E. Zaccari Memorial Parking Garage.” The collage was a sarcastic reference to comments Zaccari had made about his legacy as president.
Zaccari then directed that Barnes be “administratively withdrawn” from the university because he posed a “clear and present danger” to the campus. The case is currently before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, but the District Court found that the university president had breached Barnes’ due process rights as well as his contract with the university.
The expansion of social media has presented new challenges regarding free speech in some ways, but in other ways, said Creeley, “it’s the same as it ever was, as the Talking Heads’ song goes. There are always challenges to the boundaries of the First Amendment presented by new technology.”
Creeley sat on a panel last year at Seton Hall University in New Jersey called “Bullying and the Social Media Generation: The Effects of the New Jersey Anti-Bullying Statute on School Administration, Students, and Teachers.”
“Censorship,” he observed, “is rarely the answer to the increased visibility of student speech. More speech is always the answer.”