The 10th Annual International Students For Liberty Conference (ISFLC) took place this past weekend, in Washington, DC. The entire weekend, I was filled with a mixture of a joy so strong that it made my eyes mist up, pride at seeing the strength of the student movement for liberty today, and optimism for building a freer future. Only a handful of individuals have been to all 10 ISFLCs. As a former organizer of the event and now participant, I want to document the tribulations, the successes, and the growth of the ISFLC over 10 years.
At the 1st ISFLC in 2008, we organizers woke up at 6:30am to a phone call from a Wake Forest student asking if the conference was canceled because of the blizzard that hit NYC the night before. Four hours and hundreds of phone calls later, every student, sponsor, and speaker new we were going forward no matter what. Students in CA whose flights were canceled, took new flights to DC, a train to New Jersey, then a bus to NYC just to make the event. In the end, 100 attendees made it. After an incredible weekend with students coming up to us to ask, how they could help next year, we announced during the closing remarks that we would turn the conference into a nonprofit organization with year-round resources to support students dedicated to liberty.
The 2nd ISFLC (2009) drew 153 attendees, the growth proving not only that the conference had a future, but the student movement for liberty did as well. This was when SFL introduced the annual Awards, to connect past, present, and future student activism together through the recognition it deserves.
The 3rd ISFLC (2010) barely took place, immediately following Snowpocalypse, which shut down the entire city for a week. Yet, 300 attendees arrived to hear from Gary Johnson (his first ISFLC appearance) and visit the Cato Institute for a speech by its founder and then-president, Ed Crane.
The 4th ISFLC (2011) grew to 500 attendees, and for the first time featured a taping of the STOSSEL Show. This event hit its stride.
The 5th ISFLC (2012) marked a number of firsts: the first 1,000+ attendee ISFLC, the first musical performance (by Remy), the first Alumnus of the Year Award with a Keynote Speech by its recipient, Peter Thiel, and the first time Judd Weiss photographed the event in what is now his iconic black and white perspective. STOSSEL came back and brought with him some non-libertarians to introduce debate to the segment, such as with Ambassador John Bolton, which gave libertarian students the opportunity to question interventionist foreign policy.
The 6th ISFLC (2013) reached 1,400 attendees. The musical tradition was carried on by Dorian Electra, who participated in SFL while a high school student years ago. John Mackey gave a Keynote Speech after receiving the Alumnus of the Year Award. And STOSSEL brought along some new controversial guests, including Ann Coulter. She ignored the books strewn around the hotel titled After the Welfare State to claim that libertarians only cared about marijuana, but the real highlight was when she called libertarians a nasty word on national television (see below).
For many reasons, the 6th ISFLC was the most important ISFLC for me, personally. John Mackey's speech on Conscious Capitalism was one of the first introductions to the philosophy that I now have the honor of working on day in and day out (see www.consciouscapitalism.org). That conference gave me the courage 3 days later to ask one of SFL's alumni out to dinner, the now Mrs. Gabrielle McCobin. And, it was the first and only ISFLC that I had the chance to invite my father to attend. During the opening ceremonies I told the story of the founding of SFL as I always did, at the start of my own journey when my dad gave me a copy of Atlas Shrugged for my birthday in 9th grade. I called attention to him in the audience, thanked him for starting all of this in his own way. The crowed roared with applause. I suspect he was embarrassed. I didn't care then and am grateful now for that. He passed away several months later, and I will always cherish the memory of him at the ISFLC, the chance for me to thank him in front of everyone, and the knowledge he got to see what my work had become.
The 7th ISFLC (2014) faced off against yet another blizzard, which prevented hundreds from attending. In spite of this, the conference still drew over 1,200 attendees and showed off just how international SFL had become. The conference opened with a skit including leaders from SFL in the US, Europe, Brazil, the Spanish-Speaking Americas, and Africa. And Dr. George Ayittey won the Alumnus of the Year Award.
The 8th ISFLC (2015) was a tour de force. It was the largest ISFLC, with over 1,700 attendees. Friday night opened with Edward Snowden livestreaming to speak, followed by a conversation between Ron Paul and Judge Andrew Napolitano, moderated by Nick Gillespie. Saturday was packed with amazing breakout sessions from sunrise to sunset. And Sunday closed with speeches by former Mexican president Vicente Fox and Professor Deidre McCloskey. This time, the blizzard didn't hit until after the conference, which stranded dozens of students in DC for days.
The 9th ISFLC (2016) carried on the momentum of the previous year with a conversation with Pussy Riot's lead singer, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. Interviewing her was one of the most challenging things I have ever done. While she seemed excited about speaking to us when we first reached out to her, she showed up in a Bernie Sanders shirt and seemed intent upon emphasizing points of disagreement rather than collaboration. If I could go back, there are many things I would have done differently with that interview (including not showing up in a tie, but rather putting on my "Bernie is my comrade" t-shirt). But after we played her latest video and began to talk about the dangers of totalitarian regimes, the rest of the conversation went well. A surprise appearance by Vermin Supreme was the highlight of social media throughout the weekend. PJ O'Rourke gave his first speech at the ISFLC. Brazil swept the student awards. And both Gary Johnson and Susan Herman (president of the ACLU) closed the conference with inspirational calls to action.
The 10th ISFLC (2017) was the first and only one where I did not serve as organizer. I stepped down as SFL's president this past summer, so got to attend solely as a participant. In that role, I simply enjoyed the event and beamed with pride nonstop over everything:
The ISFLC is more than an event. In a meaningful way, it represents the student movement for liberty and so the liberty movement. It is a gathering place for advocates of liberty of all ages to come together, share their ideas, discuss best practices, and provide one another with hope for the future. Over the past 10 years, the conference and the movement have become something greater than anything we imagined.
I'll close with this: The history of the ISFLC can be told through its weather, with no greater contrast than that between the start of the 1st ISFLC and the end of the 10th. The first year, a horrendous blizzard threatened the very creation of the event. It was as if the universe was conspiring against the student movement for liberty. But we fought back. We said, this event will go on, whatever obstacle is laid before it. At the end of the 10th ISFLC, Washington, DC was aglow with warm sunshine beating down on our faces. It took a long time, but in the end, the ISFLC and the student movement for liberty that grew up with it, seemed to be welcomed in the world.