The History of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (formerly the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education)
In 1998, University of Pennsylvania history professor Alan Charles Kors and Boston civil liberties lawyer Harvey A. Silverglate co-authored The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses. In response, they received hundreds of pleas for help from college student and faculty victims of illiberal policies and double standards. To answer these calls for help and to foster a culture of respect for fundamental rights on campus, in 1999, Alan and Harvey founded the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
Alan took on the role of FIRE’s first president, while FIRE’s first employee, Executive Director Thor Halvorssen, played an important role in launching the organization from a tiny office in Wilmington, Delaware. In 2004, Thor departed as CEO, leaving FIRE firmly established and newly headquartered in Philadelphia, its current main location.
That same year, David French became president of FIRE. He moved the organization to a larger headquarters and led the team through growth until departing in 2005 to serve in Iraq as a member of the Judge Advocate General’s Corps of the United States Army. In 2006, Greg Lukianoff, who joined FIRE in 2001 as the organization’s first director of legal and public advocacy, became FIRE’s president. In 2015, he also became its CEO. That same year, Robert Shibley, a FIRE attorney since 2003, became executive director of a greatly expanded FIRE, which now had an office in Philadelphia and in Washington, D.C.
FIRE quickly became the nation’s leading defender of fundamental rights on campus through our unique mix of programming, including student and faculty outreach, public education campaigns, individual case advocacy, policy reform efforts, and, beginning in 2013, lobbying for civil liberties protections in state and federal legislatures. In 2014, FIRE’s advocacy evolved with the launch of the Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project, a national effort to eliminate unconstitutional speech codes through targeted First Amendment lawsuits. We kicked off the project by filing four lawsuits: All four resulted in victories. By 2017, this effort grew into our in-house Litigation Project.
Since its founding, FIRE has assisted faculty members in vindicating their rights to free speech and academic freedom, but in 2021 we expanded the volume of free legal representation on offer, launching the Faculty Legal Defense Fund to assist more faculty members at public colleges. That same year, FIRE launched two 24/7 hotlines to provide rapid assistance to faculty and to share advice to student journalists looking to safeguard their press freedoms on campus.
The foremost defender of campus rights and a leading college reform advocate, FIRE is also a highly regarded educator on the philosophy and history of freedom of speech, due process, and academic freedom. FIRE published the first Spotlight on Speech Codes report in 2006 and, year after year, has leveraged its ratings system and analysis of campus speech codes to reduce the number of illiberal speech policies on campus. In addition, FIRE regularly releases a report on campus due process; publishes the College Free Speech Rankings, informed by survey data; and maintains databases tracking campus disinvitations, scholar sanctions, and statements about free speech made by college leaders.
Through FIRE’s student, faculty, alumni, attorney, and high school educator networks, we provide educational resources, support research, and bring activists together in order to collaborate and support each other. FIRE’s Newsdesk, "So to Speak" podcast, supported documentaries like Mighty Ira: A Civil Liberties Story, books, and other publications feature expert commentary and provide space for discussion and education about free speech.
As of 2022, FIRE’s work on college campuses has won over 500 direct advocacy victories on behalf of college students and faculty members (with thousands more resolved behind the scenes), secured 425 campus policy changes affecting 5 million students, helped pass legislation protecting rights in 20 states, and drove a nationwide reduction in the prevalence of the most restrictive kinds of campus speech codes, from 75% in 2007 to 18% today.
While FIRE fights censorship on campus to great effect, the threats to free speech off-campus continues to grow, contributing to illiberalism on-campus and across our culture. On June 6, 2022, FIRE announced the expansion of its mission to include the defense of free expression across the United States and changed the organization’s full name to the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression.
While FIRE continues to fight for student and faculty rights, as it has done successfully for over two decades, its experienced, nonpartisan, and principled staff now take on threats to free speech off-campus, too.
FIRE, a free speech nonprofit, believes in an America in which people overwhelmingly believe in the right of others to freely express views different from their own, and expect their laws and educational institutions to reflect and teach this belief.