FIRE broadens its scope

June 7, 2022 • 10:00 am

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has been a very valuable resource in documenting and correcting violations of free speech on college campuses, whether those campuses are private or public. Now, however, FIRE has expanded its mission and renamed itself, and in a very good way. Read about it by clicking on the screenshot:

From FIRE:

Today, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education becomes the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression.

America’s leading defender of free speech, due process, and academic freedom in higher education is expanding its free speech mission beyond campus. The $75 million expansion initiative will focus on three main areas of programming: litigation, public education, and research.

“America needs a new nonpartisan defender of free speech that will advocate unapologetically for this fundamental human right in both the court of law and the court of public opinion,” said FIRE President & CEO Greg Lukianoff. “FIRE has a proven track record of defeating censorship on campus. We are excited to now bring that same tireless advocacy to fighting censorship off campus.”

As part of its expansion initiative, FIRE is also launching a $10 million nationwide advertising campaign to promote a culture of free expression. The campaign, Faces of Free Speech, launches today and will last throughout the remainder of 2022. The campaign will initially reach Americans through robust national cable television, digital, and billboard advertising.

There will be billboards in 15 cities, all listed in the piece.

This expansion of its mission can only be to the good. The more sites fostering free expression, whether on or off campus, the better, for the more voices are raised in defense of open discourse.

The “new” FIRE describes its mission:

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression’s (FIRE’s) mission is to defend and sustain the individual rights of all Americans to free speech and free thought—the most essential qualities of liberty. FIRE educates Americans about the importance of these inalienable rights, promotes a culture of respect for these rights, and provides the means to preserve them.

FIRE recognizes that colleges and universities play a vital role in preserving free thought within a free society. To this end, we place a special emphasis on defending the individual rights of students and faculty members on our nation’s campuses, including freedom of speech, freedom of association, due process, legal equality, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience.

In other words, it’s taking the place of the American Civil Liberties Union (with a concentration on speech) since the ACLU has more or less abandoned its historical mission.

Remember that although the First Amendment applies legally only to public universities, many private schools (like Princeton) have avowed a policy of free speech, and endorsed the Chicago Principles of Free Expression, which more or less follow the First Amendment. And any school, even a private one that avows principles of free speech (and more than eighty have supported the Chicago version) can be sued for violating them.

Remember too that the classical rationales for free speech said virtually nothing about the First Amendment or government censorship. If you read John Stuart Mill’s classic On Liberty, as you should, you’ll see that his many arguments for free speech rest on the merits of free speech itself, regardless of its context or who the potential censors might be. In fact, he seems to have been most worried about “social censorship”—disapprobation that could lead to chilling of speech.

17 thoughts on “FIRE broadens its scope

  1. Finally something in the news I don’t dread! I won’t be an optimist any time soon, but this is the most reassuring thing I have seen in a long time. I wish them well.

  2. Yes, I ended my ACLU membership a while back, although that has only increased the number of missives in my mailbox. Now there is another organization for me to join. Hadn’t felt motivated until now, since I am not a university person.

  3. One recent story which has received insufficient attention in the media (although it was covered by Spiked) involves the dismissal of Zac Kriegman, a data scientist at Reuters with a background in economics and law. He dared to question (based on empirical evidence) the prevailing narrative surrounding BLM; he was not only fired by the company but abandoned by many of his former colleagues and friends.

    1. My vote for most likely: they’ll start calling FIRE a hate group within the next two years.

  4. Good to see FIRE taking up the slack left by the capitulation of the ACLU in the public arena.

  5. Despite their supposed policy, Princeton recently fired professor Joshua Katz for a misdemeanor that he committed decades ago and for which he HAD BEEN ALREADY PUNISHED AT THE TIME. Double jeopardy: fired after serving his term. I assume and hope he will file a lawsuit against them. Maybe FIRE will help him.

    1. Princeton’s Eisgruber is equivalent in spinelessness to Yale’s Salovey. To expect wisdom or courage from the leadership of the Ivies is a fool’s errand indeed! Katz would certainly do well to file suit.

  6. “…since the ACLU has more or less abandoned its historical mission.”

    I’d say it’s less abandonment and more setting it on fire, stomping it out, and then protesting that it’s our solemn duty to fight the ashes.

  7. As part of its expansion initiative, FIRE is also launching a $10 million nationwide advertising campaign to promote a culture of free expression.

    Today I saw what appears to be one of FIRE’s first tv ads in this campaign, featuring former Green Beret Nate Boyer and former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick:

  8. I looked through FIRE’s website a bit and could not find what would interest me the most, namely a discussion of what they view as the grey areas. It is easy to advocate free speech in the abstract, but how far does this go in any given context?
    Should a student be entirely free to express every conceivable opinion in any and all campus environments? (I say campus here, since FIRE has largely been active here.) Should s/he be able to freely express and advocate for the idea that black people / women / jews, etc. should be excluded from that campus (or other place)? Should s/he be able to employ any vocabulary s/he chooses in doing so, including the n-word, misogynist words, antisemitic slurs?
    What about expressing hate? Hate is, of course, one of our many emotions. Should a person not be able to freely express this hate?
    If so, then presumably any and all types of white supremacist advocacy, to name just one flavour, should be allowed and defended. If not, then the discussion becomes how and in what ways do we limit the extent of the freedom of speech that is allowed or sanctioned.
    And what about the rights of those affected by various forms of speech? Do not black students have some form of right to go about their studies without being plagued by the free expression of racist speech? Do women not have some kind of right to do so without being constantly exposed to sexist, misogynist views and expressions? Do we exclusively defend the rights of a person to say whatever s/he wants and ignore the rights of those affected by those expressions?
    Again, it is the grey areas, where difficult cases arise and the rights of the one conflict with the rights of others that are of interest to me, and indeed are the focus of the ever changing discourse on these matters.

    1. College students have precisely the same rights to free speech as other citizens — which is to say, to express their views (however repugnant others may find them), but not to engage in stalking, harassment, threats of physical violence (viz., assault), or other conduct that constitutes a violation of law.

      1. > What about expressing hate? Hate is, of course, one of our many emotions.

        Thank you! Several years ago, older acquaintances had been railing against the term ‘-phobic’ to mean anything other than ‘fearful’, and it took me a while to understand. Now I’m seeing it with ‘hate’. A lot of things termed ‘hate speech’ have nothing to do with actual emotional hatred. The next time you see someone accused of ‘hate speech’, please ask if there is any evidence that the person actually feels hatred.

        > College students have precisely the same rights to free speech as other citizens

        As other humans! The Bill of Rights does not distinguish between citizens and non-citizens.

        1. Provided they live in the USA. Few other countries restrain their governments from abridging free speech with anywhere near the vigor that the U.S. Constitution and courts do.
          (Spelling vigor without the “u” just to honour the American effort. I’m also donating to FIRE.)

      2. And what constitutes “harassment”? Can you give some examples of what does and what does not?
        What about, e.g. the racial slurs, monkey calls and tossed banana peels that football/soccer players of colour often have to endure during a game? Are these “fans” lawfully expressing their views and feelings concerning race? Should the players just have to grin and bear it? Or should these “fans” be sanctioned in some manner? And by whom? And who decides what they can say/do and not say/do?

    2. You ask many questions.
      From the first “Should”, to “What about expressing hate?”, the answer is “yes” every time.

      “If so . . .”
      Since so, then yes any and all types of white supremacist advocacy etc. is allowed except what the interpretation of the 1A already allows the state to prohibit, chiefly incitement to actual violence where violence is likely to result. No one has to defend it, just oppose all official attempts to silence it. Since not “not”, then there is no discussion needed about how and in what ways you ought to limit the extent further.

      “And what about the rights of those affected. . .” What about them? They can say whatever they want, too. Their rights to free expression are not abridged by what someone else said.
      “Do not black students have some form of right [not to be plagued] by . . . racist speech?” No
      “Do women not . . .?” No
      “Do we exclusively defend the rights of a person to say what s/he wants. . .?” Yes.
      “. . . and ignore the rights of those affected by those expressions.” That is the logical fallacy of begging the question, so it doesn’t need an answer. You haven’t established that other people’s rights are affected by free speech. I have argued above that they are not adversely affected.

      I suppose the gray areas are whether private non-governmental actors like non-state colleges and private businesses are (or ought to be) bound by the First Amendment in the same way that state actors are. That is an area for scholars more familiar with American legal practice but I don’t think there is an issue about the content of what would be permitted. FIRE’s advocacy and litigation might well break ground here about extending First Amendment protections into the private realm. Employers (or colleges) might now have an obligation under human rights legislation to prohibit some content of speech by their employees or students, and punish it by firing so as to avoid being shaken down by the Human Rights Tribunals. But it would be good to have some First Amendment sunlight shone on those Human Rights Codes, don’t you think?. Wish ’em well.

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