Traffic cops who arrest drivers for flipping the bird, municipal paper-pushers who deny protest permits and scheming state lawmakers who misuse their laboratories of democracy to concoct a witches’ brew of suppressive statutes could use a support group right about now.
The odds that they can continue quietly micromanaging public discourse took a nosedive on June 6.
FIRE, the nation’s premier nonpartisan defender of First Amendment rights on college and university campuses, has widened its scope from the student union to the town square.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education rechristened itself the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression and took on the mantle of a national free speech advocacy group no longer limited to weighing in on campus controversies.
It’s a holistic approach, President and CEO Greg Lukianoff explained, as much of American life is downstream from the ivory tower. Today’s censorious students are tomorrow’s white-collar workforce, and the attitudes they bring with them can gradually remake mainstream culture in their image.
“Our defense of freedom of speech and inquiry on campus will remain core to what we do and will grow in the coming years,” Lukianoff said in a June 6 news release. “But we have come to realize that defending the First Amendment and a culture of free speech off-campus is essential to protecting those values on-campus, just as much as fighting for those values on-campus is essential for preserving them off-campus.”
FIRE has cultivated a fearsome reputation for its work in the academic sphere. In its 23 years of existence, the Philadelphia-based nonprofit has chalked up 500-plus “direct advocacy victories” — lawsuits won, settlements secured and satisfactory outcomes achieved through persuasion alone — changed 425 problematic college policies and helped pass free speech-friendly laws in 20 states.
Deans, provosts and chancellors tremble to find themselves on the receiving end of a FIRE letter festooned with footnotes and case law citations — and those are the smart ones.
Recalcitrant campus censors who shrug off the group’s warnings get their comeuppance in court.
FIRE is now accepting case submissions from the general public. Anyone in the United States with a claimed First Amendment violation can visit thefire.org/alarm and complete a form to request assistance. Depending on the facts, foundation staff may offer legal representation, public advocacy, publicity or all of the above.
The service fills a gap left by the American Civil Liberties Union, a storied champion for the First Amendment that has drifted away from free speech work in its embrace of progressive politics. Today’s ACLU is loath to represent unsympathetic speakers like neo-Nazis asserting the right to march through Skokie, Illinois, or Westboro Baptist Church members who picket military funerals with homophobic signs.
Representing such contemptible clients is the price of preserving free expression for all Americans. It requires a strong stomach, and FIRE reliably rises to the defense of those with whom it disagrees.
Fueling FIRE’s ambitious expansion is a three-year, $75 million campaign. The group already has collected $28.5 million in contributions, Politico reports, and it’s working to sign up new members with a $25 minimum donation.
In addition to research and litigation, FIRE is focusing on public education in hopes of correcting misconceptions, molding minds and instilling a fondness for first principles in popular culture. It’s poured $10 million into advertising and is renting billboards in 15 major cities.
Messages include, “Free speech makes free people” and, “Speech you hate is still free speech” with “hate” and “speech” highlighted in red to emphasize that — much to the surprise of those who conflate social media policies with constitutional law — there’s no hate speech exception to the First Amendment.
Almost two decades ago, FIRE answered my call for help when administrators tried to censor a community college student newspaper in small-town North Carolina. With its staff’s expert guidance, my fellow student journalists and I successfully asserted our editorial independence from the school.
The organization has since helped thousands of students and professors who faced unlawful consequences for exercising their First Amendment rights — a phenomenon that happens far too often. With a broader mission and a new name, FIRE will provide the same zealous and effective advocacy for Americans outside the college bubble.