Reason #2 to Donate to FIRE: We Are Changing the Campus Culture

By on December 29, 2010

In the past year, with the help of our donors, FIRE has revitalized our strategy for "changing the campus culture" and creating permanent change within our nation’s institutions of higher education. We have focused specifically on an approach aimed at altering the incentive structure for administrators, working with both "carrots" and "sticks" to produce positive reforms at our nation’s colleges and universities.

The "sticks" in this approach are initiatives that demonstrate to administrators the tangible consequences they will face if they ignore FIRE and continue to violate the rights of students and faculty members on their campuses. In 2010, FIRE has made significant strides in generating added pressure for administrators to reform their campus policies and practices. With your gift today, we can continue this work with even more vigor in 2011.

Holding Administrators Personally Responsible for Violating Rights

FIRE secured an especially significant victory in September 2010, when we won a federal civil rights lawsuit through our Legal Network against a former college president on behalf of a student whose First Amendment and due process rights were grossly violated. In what may ultimately prove to be the most important legal victory in FIRE’s history, we successfully pierced the "qualified immunity" of a high-ranking university official–meaning that he will be held personally liable for violating a student’s rights. This is a critical part of our larger legal strategy to make administrators respect free speech, due process, and freedom of conscience, whether they want to or not. If upheld on appeal, this decision will finally give university counsels real reason to take sides against speech codes, and it ought to give great anxiety to administrators who might otherwise be tempted to pass or enforce speech codes.

Additionally, FIRE has taken clear steps to tell administrators that speech codes are illegal, thereby decreasing the likelihood that they can successfully claim a defense of qualified immunity in a lawsuit. In 2008 and then again just last week, FIRE issued a national letter by certified mail to all of the nearly 300 public red-light and yellow-light colleges and universities in our speech code database, warning them about the dangers of violating the constitutional rights of their students and faculty members. The letters also serve as actual notice that these schools are violating the Constitution, thereby directly contributing to the function of piercing qualified immunity. In addition, FIRE has delivered presentations about qualified immunity to administrators both online and at the national conference of the Association for Student Conduct Administration, and we published a law review article arguing the case for denying qualified immunity to administrators who violate students’ speech rights.

Speech Code Litigation Project and Legal Efforts

FIRE continues to win crucial, precedent-setting legal victories, and our Speech Code Litigation Project maintained its 100% success rate with its seventh straight victory in March 2010. FIRE successfully worked with the ACLU of Texas and cooperating attorneys to defeat Tarrant County College’s (TCC’s) speech codes, including a free speech zone and a ban on co-sponsoring campus events with outside groups in federal court. Victories such as the one at TCC drive home an important message: defending censorship is not only a losing proposition, it is also expensive. For fighting and losing to FIRE and its own students, TCC was ordered to pay attorneys’ fees totaling $240,000.

FIRE also works to achieve positive legal outcomes, even when not coordinating litigation. For example, we filed crucial amicus briefs in several cases in 2010, two of which we have reason to believe substantially helped secure positive outcomes, including the Third Circuit’s decision to strike down its second speech code in three years in McCauley v. University of the Virgin Islands. Additionally, FIRE started teaching Continuing Legal Education courses in 2010, and our Legal Network has grown substantially. Through the scholarship produced by our current Jackson Legal Fellow, Erica Goldberg, and the continued success of our Legal Internship Program, FIRE has also engaged fellow attorneys in new and significant ways.

FIRE Makes Schools That Violate Student Rights FamousFor the Wrong Reason

FIRE’s annual full-page advertisement in U.S. News & World Report‘s college rankings issue continues to be one of our most successful advertising initiatives, reaching 1.5 million readers, many of whom are prospective college students and their parents. FIRE’s third annual ad, which ran in late August, highlighted the six schools that have earned FIRE’s Red Alert distinction for being the "worst of the worst" when it comes to liberty on campus: Bucknell University, Brandeis University, Colorado College, Johns Hopkins University, Michigan State University, and Tufts University.

FIRE’s media reach also plays an important role in creating pressure for administrators to reform their policies-the more publicity FIRE is able to generate, the more likely it is that administrators will choose to work with FIRE to avoid facing extensive negative publicity. So far this year, FIRE’s work has been featured in more than 100 news articles in nearly 70 publications, which have a combined print circulation of nearly 10 million readers, with more than 141 million additional readers online. Additionally, FIRE staff and representatives have spoken on 18 radio broadcasts and made appearances on MSNBC, on FOX Business Network’s Stossel, and on FOX & Friends on FOX News.

Finally, FIRE launched a new "Give Half for Liberty" campaign in 2010, which encourages alumni of schools that maintain speech codes to donate either all or a portion of what they would donate to their alma mater to FIRE instead. This serves a dual purpose: it enables alumni to send a powerful message to administrators that they won’t fully support their schools until they protect free speech, and it provides FIRE with the resources to reach out specifically to administrators at those schools in order to provide them with the tools to restore freedom to their campuses.

In summary, FIRE is working to ensure that administrators who refuse to respect the Constitution face possible legal action, expenses, the loss of qualified immunity, and heavy negative publicity. But we also want to send the message that none of that is necessary. FIRE also offers a number of resources as part of our effort to proactively encourage administrators to cooperate with us in reforming their campuses.

FIRE Works with Administrators to Identify What Changes Need to Be Made

FIRE strives to make reforming campus policies easy for administrators. To this end, FIRE released a handbook for administrators entitled Correcting Common Mistakes in Campus Speech Policies. This handbook serves as a comprehensive yet accessible guide to help administrators identify and remedy the most prevalent problems in policies governing student and faculty speech.

FIRE staff members also dedicate significant time to corresponding by phone and e-mail with individual administrators. In October, efforts like these led the University of Virginia (UVa) to eliminate all four of its speech codes to earn a green-light rating from FIRE for protecting speech. UVa became just the thirteenth green-light school in FIRE’s Spotlight database and reassured its more than 24,000 students that they are free to engage in a vibrant marketplace of ideas on campus. This is a great success for FIRE.

Positive Publicity for Cooperation and Reform

While FIRE generates negative publicity surrounding schools that refuse to work with us, we are quick to use our Media Network to generate positive publicity for those schools that do cooperate with FIRE. Schools that earn a green-light rating-such as the University of Virginia-receive public praise, as do schools that reverse poor practices or revise policies after receiving a letter from FIRE. Additionally, all of the schools that reform policies that FIRE has designated as "Speech Codes of the Month" receive public praise. Since June 2005, 26 of the 67 schools (39%) with Speech Codes of the Month have received positive publicity from FIRE for revising or eliminating the targeted policies.

We firmly believe that using these initiatives to change the incentive structure for administrators and rebalance the carrots and sticks of legal liability could go a long way towards turning the generally pro-censorship risk management industry into (admittedly self-interested) advocates of free speech-a crucial step in creating lasting and meaningful reform in higher education.

If you agree that this strategy has the potential to truly change campus culture to one that respects individual liberty, we strongly hope you will consider donating to FIRE today. It’s only because of our donors that we are able to continue this work.

Be sure to check back on Friday, when we will be sharing the #1 reason we at FIRE believe you should support our work.