FIRE was established in 1999 by Harvey A. Silverglate and Alan Charles Kors in order to “defend and sustain individual rights at America’s increasingly repressive and partisan colleges and universities,” according to FIRE’s website. The organization concentrates on “freedom of speech, legal equality, due process, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience – the essential qualities of individual liberty and dignity.”
A “red light” designation means the University has “at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.” A “yellow light” school indicates that the university “has some policies that could ban or excessively regulate protected speech.” A “green light” means that FIRE is “unable to find a policy that seriously imperils speech.”
According to program manager Robert Shibley, about 285 colleges and universities have been assessed by FIRE’s speechcode alert system, and more than 50 percent of them are “red light” schools.
One of LSU’s policies that FIRE challenged was their broad definition of sexual harassment that included such language as “obscene gestures” and “offensive language.”
Shibley said that according to this language, “if I raise my middle finger to you, it could be considered sexual harassment because that’s an obscene gesture, or if I said the ‘f-word’, that could be considered sexual harassment because it’s offensive language.”
Shibley said that FIRE’s concern is that these actions alone are not considered actual sexual harassment. This speech often is protected by the Constitution as confirmed by U.S. Supreme Court rulings including Cohen v. California (1971) which declared it freedom of expression for a 19-year old male to wear explicit messages denouncing the war on his jacket.
“The way the policy is worded makes it easy to abuse. The way it’s worded raises the risk that people won’t take actual sexual harassment seriously,” said Shibley.
Upon review of FIRE’s online assessment of LSU policy, Dean of Students and Assistant Vice Chancellor Kevin Price noted that “they [FIRE] fail to state any specific objections to any of the LSU policies they list. Since it is unclear what they object to, it is impossible to respond to it.”
Since FIRE was first established, some schools have slowly moved their policies in a “green light”-friendly direction.
“When we have a case with them [a school] they realize they are red or yellow and then they address that,” Shibley said.
FIRE IN ACTION
In November of 2004, LSU was presented with a case by FIRE representing the Muslim Students Association (MSA).
According to a letter from FIRE to the Interim Chancellor William Jenkins, the University refused to officially recognize the student organization because of the MSA’s refusal to give up the right to determine membership by religious criteria. However, the University nondiscrimination statement says:
No student who meets other criteria for membership can be denied membership on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, marital status, veteran’s status, or sexual orientation.
FIRE argued that “No group can control the delivery of its message if it is unable to define its message and membership,” as reaffirmed by Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, 2000, according to the letter.
“Part of freedom is the freedom to run an organization the way you see fit. It doesn’t make sense to force a Muslim group let non-Muslims join,” Shibley said.
A press release dated March 17, 2005, stated that after three letters from FIRE, Dean Price met with MSA leaders and granted official recognition to their organization confirming another victory for FIRE.
But, according to Dean Price, LSU had intentions of changing their language in the student organization handbook “after meeting with MSA, and long before receiving a letter from FIRE.”
Dean Price said that FIRE’s press release contains misleading inaccuracies.
“As our exchange of letters clearly demonstrates, we never found their arguments regarding our policy persuasive and we firmly rejected the language they insisted we use,” Dean Price said.
The new policy states: “Any LSU student, faculty member or staff member who subscribes to the purpose and basic policies of the organization may become a member of this organization, subject only to the compliance with the provisions of the constitution.”
“The MSA chose to submit a constitution based on the same format we have for any organization,” Dean Price said.
In contrast to many other institutions, “LSU has a history of encouraging freedom of expression by creating the highly visible area known as ‘Free Speech Alley’ and now ‘Free Speech Plaza’, but does not limit free expression to these areas,” Dean Price said.
Shibley said that FIRE is funded primarily by private individual donors and foundations.
FIRE’s speechcode alert system and assessment of universities can be found at www.thefire.org/spotlight.