Lighting the FIRE of Liberty in Philadelphia

January 25, 2006

The seeds of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) sprouted at Penn over a decade ago. Late one night in 1993, in response to the loud singing and stomping of a group of African-American sorority girls, Penn student Eden Jacobowitz yelled, from the window of his dorm room, “Shut up, you water buffalo. If you want a party, there’s a zoo a mile from here.” For his “water buffalo” comment—a translation of a Yiddish term for rude people—Penn unjustly charged Jacobowitz with violating its racial harassment policy. Professor Alan Charles Kors, along with other members of the faculty, recognized the danger to liberty posed by the restriction on freedom of speech in Penn’s policy. As Jacobowitz’s advisor, Kors fought this restraint of liberty—and won.

Kors, along with his old friend and well-known civil liberties attorney Harvey A. Silverglate, founded FIRE in 1999, a year after they published The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses. The two men founded FIRE to answer the hundreds of pleas for help they received from those stripped of their freedoms at universities all over the country.

Every day, FIRE handles cases involving traditional American liberties such as freedom of speech, legal equality, due process, religious liberty, and freedom of conscience. FIRE has defended students and professors, conservatives and liberals, religious believers and atheists, at tiny private colleges and at large public universities—all victims of a campus culture that too often favors oppression over liberty.

Based in Philadelphia, FIRE has always had a particular interest in Penn. As a private institution, Penn is not legally bound to honor First Amendment freedoms. Yet Penn has strongly stated commitments to free speech which it is contractually, not to mention morally, bound to honor. Penn’s “Guidelines on Open Expression” protect “the concepts of freedom of thought, inquiry, speech, and lawful assembly” and go on to say that “[t]he freedom to experiment, to present and examine alternative data and theories; the freedom to hear, express, and debate various views; and the freedom to voice criticism of existing practices and values are fundamental rights that must be upheld and practiced by the University in a free society.”

Yet constant vigilance among Penn’s students and faculty is necessary if these freedoms are to be guaranteed. A university willing to persecute a student for merely taking a picture of other students who choose to have sex in public is a university where the work of safeguarding liberty is not yet complete. Regardless of incidents of repressed expression such as the photo scandal, Penn is still ahead of its peers in terms of guaranteeing freedoms.

Sadly, of the Ivy League schools, only Penn and Dartmouth have policies on speech that would be constitutional at public universities—and such policies came only recently to Dartmouth. FIRE’s fight to bring freedom of speech to Dartmouth is an example of the enormous task that faces advocates of civil liberties even on campuses, like Penn, that commit themselves to respect students’ fundamental freedoms.

Dartmouth has long claimed to respect freedom of speech. For instance, in his 2004 convocation address, Dartmouth President James Wright strongly endorsed this fundamental freedom. Yet few students realized that three years earlier, Wright took a very different stance on the subject. In a 2001 letter to the Dartmouth community regarding expression by fraternity members that many found offensive, Wright made it clear that free speech on campus was conditioned on the reactions of the least tolerant listener, that vague and ambiguous standards would be applied to punish expression, and he clearly singled out certain kinds of speech for punishment because they advocated unpopular points of view.

FIRE had struggled with Dartmouth for years, and had given the school a “red light” rating on its Spotlight website, a catalog of university speech codes (Penn, which says it protects free speech, has a “green light.”). After Wright’s 2004 address, Dartmouth sent FIRE a letter requesting that the school’s rating be upgraded. Yet Wright’s 2001 letter remained in a prominent place on Dartmouth’s website, acting as a warning to those who might dare to say or do the unpopular.

In 2005, after months of pressure and correspondence between FIRE and Dartmouth, the college finally removed the 2001 letter from its website to end confusion over its policies and reiterated its commitment to freedom of speech. FIRE had finally won a victory five years in the making.

Thankfully, the vast majority of FIRE cases are resolved much more rapidly. Yet in an effort to change the culture that produces the repression FIRE sees everyday, FIRE also works to educate students about their rights. Aside from the above-mentioned Spotlight website, FIRE has published five Guides to Student Rights on Campus that are free for students and that cover freedom of speech, religious liberty, due process and fair procedure, student fees and legal equality, and first year orientation and thought reform. FIRE also operates an undergraduate and legal internship program, for which which Penn students are encouraged to apply. And, of course, all of this, along with our daily blog on campus issues, The Torch, can be found on our website at thefire.org.

FIRE encourages all Penn students to take advantage of the tools we provide, to learn their rights, and to monitor and protect liberty on Penn’s campus. And if a situation does arise, remember: the resources of FIRE are there to protect you.

Chris Perez, a Penn graduate, is a Program Associate with FIRE. Robert Shibley, an attorney, is FIRE’s Program Manager.

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Schools: University of Pennsylvania Dartmouth College Cases: Dartmouth College: Abolition of Speech Code