BACK TO SCHOOL: Tips for Submitting Your Case to FIRE

August 30, 2016

To students arriving at college for the first time this fall: Welcome! And to returning students: Welcome back! As you may have seen yesterday, FIRE is kicking off the new academic year by offering students a range of resources for exercising their free speech rights—including, importantly, the right to protest. Throughout the week, we’ll continue to highlight those resources for students on our website, so keep reading!

As director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program, I’m going to highlight one of the most basic resources we have: our case submission form. Some of you, after all, are going to need it if your speech is censored on campus or if you face investigation or sanctions as a result of your expression. And you won’t be the only one. By the end of 2016, we’ll likely have seen more than 900 submissions for the year, the great bulk of which will be submitted through our website.

That’s a lot of information for our team to process and cases for us to investigate. So what’s the best way to convey that information to us? If I had to sum it up in one word, it would be this: concisely.

This is, of course, often easier said than done. When you’re in a bind and feeling uncertain or anxious about your situation, it’s understandable to want to provide as much information and context on your case as possible. This isn’t necessary, however. In fact, it can be counterproductive. A lengthy submission can be comprehensive, but might come at the cost of obscuring the major issues. Excessively short submissions can go too far in the other direction, leaving out context or background that hinders a basic understanding of the case. In each scenario, FIRE’s response isn’t as efficient as it could be, and if you’re facing a disciplinary process, you might not have that much time to spare.

My suggestion is to try and keep your submission to not more than a few paragraphs. That’s generally long enough to succinctly convey such information as:

  • What happened. What action or incident sparked the situation you’re in now? A brief sense of the sequence of events that transpired to wind you up in the current situation is fundamental to figuring out where and whether your university went wrong.
  • What you’re facing. Are you accused of violating a specific university policy? If so, which one? Are you currently facing an investigation or hearing related to the alleged violation? If so, what kind of timeline are you facing for your response? There won’t always be clear answers to these kinds of questions. As we’ve seen countless times, universities can be disconcertingly vague with their processes. The upshot to this is that what your university won’t tell you can be just as important as what it will.
  • What evidence you have. It’s useful to get a sense of how you’ve been able to document your case to this point. Do you have an official letter from the university outlining specific charges or allegations? Is your censorship issue substantiated through a series of emails with the administration? Does it rely primarily on your recollections of recent conversations? Where there are gaps in the documentation process, FIRE can help students fill them, but it’s good know know what we’re working with as early in the process as possible.

Of course, cases don’t always set themselves up so neatly. Clear-cut violations of student rights can often be substantiated with fairly minimal documentation, but I’ve also been at FIRE long enough, and reviewed enough cases, to see numerous exceptions to this rule. The bottom line is this: If you have a case, or think you have one, contact FIRE and let us know about it. Hopefully these general suggestions, based on several years of fielding students’ cases, can be of use. Many students will find that consolidating the disparate elements of their cases into a streamlined narrative helps organize their own understanding of the situation at hand. And beyond that, it helps FIRE better do what we’re here to do: defend the free speech rights of students nationwide.