Why Doesn’t FIRE Condemn This Viewpoint I Hate?

By on March 16, 2011

I’d like to take some time once again to address a criticism that FIRE sometimes receives: that we don’t denounce the actual viewpoint of speech that people find to be offensive, racist, sexist, etc., with sufficient vehemence while we’re in the process of defending the fundamental right of Americans to say such things. That suggestion has been raised with regard to my blog post from yesterday about the UCLA "Asians in the Library" video, and the subtext of it seems to be that FIRE is, in the end, sort of OK with racism, hate, or what-have-you.

While this accusation is somewhat hurtful on a personal level for those of us who work for FIRE, we have excellent reasons for communicating the way we do. That’s not going to change simply because we personally don’t like to be accused of being insensitive or worse.

First of all, all of us at FIRE are proud of the fact that FIRE is a nonpartisan individual rights organization that defends people with a huge variety of beliefs. From PETA to David Horowitz, from Bill Ayers to Tom Tancredo, from Christians to Muslims, from The Passion of the Christ to The Passion of the Musical, in FIRE’s 11 years we have worked to ensure that speakers of all ideologies, religions, and political affiliations can be heard on campus. Often, the people and expressive acts that we defend are hugely controversial but, after all, there’s a reason FIRE has to come to their defense.

FIRE was founded to help a vast diversity of people and groups, and the vast diversity of our cases demonstrates, I think, that we’ve been doing this correctly. An integral part of being able to do the work we do is not letting our feelings about the viewpoint of the expression itself affect how we analyze the expression or how vigorously we defend the rights of the speaker.

There are two reasons for this. First, as a free speech organization, we would be misusing our time and energy were we to spend hours apologizing for the protected expression of the speakers we’re defending to everyone who took offense. Besides, there is not and can be no unified public morality that determines what level of offensiveness or unpopularity requires a preemptive apology in order to lend credibility to the principles of free speech.

Instead, we consistently present on our website all the evidence that we have about the expression in question in order to help people make up their minds for themselves, and we expect people to draw their own conclusions. We are humans, not free-speech robots, so sometimes our feelings leak through. But overall this is a result we try to avoid, as it is a distraction from our task of defending the free speech and due process rights of all college and university students and faculty members, regardless of viewpoint.

This brings me to the second reason, which is that in order to remain an honest and trustworthy broker to whom people of all different values and beliefs can come for help, it’s important not to go too far in making judgments about people’s expression. In the instant case, for example, it’s possible that Alexandra Wallace will have to come to FIRE for help if UCLA decides to try to punish her for her protected expression. How likely is that to happen if she goes to our website and reads us going on at length about how awful her expression is?

FIRE is often the only possible defender of those on campus who are in trouble for their expression and can’t afford a lawyer or PR person to defend themselves (which is true of most students). As an institution, therefore, FIRE doesn’t judge the viewpoint of the expression, and we don’t make our decision on the basis of whether or not we like what a person has to say. Instead, we analyze whether a person’s rights have been violated and then defend those rights in the best way we know how. Bemoaning the offensiveness of some expression while simultaneously defending the right to say it is also a great way to confuse people about whether you’re defending the viewpoint of the expression or the right to say it. Since FIRE doesn’t have an interest in promoting the viewpoints of the people involved with our cases, it’s hard to see how this would help us fulfill our mission.

FIRE’s credibility comes in large part from helping all students and faculty members in higher education without judging their views or their expression. At the same time, we understand that for many other people and organizations, credibility often depends on a demonstration of the  "right" moral views. That’s fine for other people and groups, but such demonstrations are not within FIRE’s mission.

If you come to FIRE looking for moral evaluations of particular expression, you’re better off looking elsewhere. If, however, you come to FIRE looking for defense of expression without regard to its content, then you’re in the right place.

Schools: University of California, Los Angeles Cases: University of California at Los Angeles: Disciplinary Investigation of Student’s Video