FIRE ‘Increasingly Ideological’?

By April 26, 2007

Last week we devoted much space (here, here, here, here, and here) to addressing the many deep misrepresentations and errors in Jon Gould’s Chronicle of Higher Education article (subscribers only) attacking FIRE. While I had thought we had said enough, a reader called to ask if we had addressed Gould’s claim that FIRE was an “an increasingly ideological” organization. Given that people (not just at FIRE) are still talking about the many flaws in the article, I decided to take a minute to talk about my feelings about this accusation: it’s tiresome, provably false, lazy, dishonest, and particularly galling to me on a personal level.
 
Darkly hinting that FIRE is on a rightward drift, or is a crazy right-wing organization, is an old tactic of people who, like Gould, would like to ignore the hundreds of well-documented incidents of campus repression FIRE has brought to public attention over the years. It’s an argument proffered by people who wish to pretend that there is no real problem on campus and it is not one for which I have a great deal of patience.
 
If FIRE is a secret right-wing front group, this sinister secret has apparently been hidden from me. When I started as FIRE’s first Director of Legal and Public Advocacy back in 2001, my very first letter defended the rights of University of New Mexico Professor Richard Berthold, under attack for the following statement: “Anyone who can blow up the Pentagon has my vote.” My first TV appearance was to defend the free speech and due process rights of then-University of South Florida Professor Sami Al-Arian. I have appeared on Fox News defending the rights of Ward Churchill (who called the World Trade Center victims “little Eichmanns”) and Nicholas DeGenova (“I pray for a million Mogadishus”), and debated Pat Buchanan about tiny and isolated “free speech zones” at Texas Tech. As for my background, before graduating law school I worked for such crazy right-wing outfits as the ACLU of Northern California, the EnvironMentors Project in Washington, D.C., the Organization for Aid to Refugees in Prague, and the Fulbright program. I am a lifelong Democrat, and while accusations of conservatism used to hurt my feelings, I have come to understand that they are the arguments of last resort for people who do not like what FIRE has to say about the state of liberty on campus.
 
FIRE defends the rights of those from all points of the political spectrum and we take flack from all points of the political spectrum about one case or another—which indicates to me that we are doing something right! We are uniquely nonpartisan, a reality that is reflected in our founders, our Board of Directors, our Board of Advisors, and, most of all, our staff. I have never before worked in an office (or even heard of one) where Democrats, Republicans, libertarians, Greens, atheists, Jews (from liberal to orthodox), agnostics, Muslims, and evangelical Christians pull together for a common cause.
 
If Gould believes that our ideology is to blame for the fact that we have an abundance of cases involving people who run afoul of campus political correctness, he is deluding himself. Political correctness is far from dead, and I think one would have to be more than a little out of touch to believe that a person is just as likely to get in trouble for, say, vocally opposing gay marriage or affirmative action on the current college campus than for supporting them.
 
It is true, looking back, that in the last year or so, FIRE has had more cases that seem to that fit the classic “political correctness run amok” mold, from the case of SUNY Fredonia Professor Stephen Kershnar to our most recent case at the University of Rhode Island. But in 2005, FIRE took a larger proportion of “liberal” cases than usual. The flavor of cases that come in during a particular period does fluctuate, but FIRE does not.
 
Gould also seems to distrust FIRE’s support of religious students, especially Christian student groups that get in trouble on campus. I am not a religious person myself, and before working at FIRE I had no idea how bad the problem was, but I did not have to work here for very long before I discovered that fundamentalists and evangelicals do run afoul of the campus speech and propriety police all the time. As a testament to how mindlessly partisan our society has become, I remember being asked by a reporter during the University of Wisconsin system “Bible study ban” fight why someone who was not religious would fight for the rights of Christian evangelical students. Why? Because denying citizens their basic constitutional and human rights to freely express their religion is wrong, and it should be opposed by all people who believe in liberty and decency.
 
Of course, when liberal professors or students get in trouble, FIRE helps aggressively and effectively. Sometimes, like in the cases of Gale Isaacs and Elizabeth Ito, FIRE is virtually alone in defending the rights of these professors. We have proven this commitment time and time again, whether our cases deal with conservatives, liberals, the religious, people who make fun of religion, or, as in many of our cases, speech that is not particularly political at all. FIRE’s track record is nothing short of remarkable, and reflects our deeply principled commitment to liberty. If the best Gould can do is ominously hint at our corruption while ignoring all the facts that go squarely against him, he certainly must be thin on good arguments.