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Best of Newsdesk: “Where’s FIRE!?” On the case, as always

By August 7, 2017

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is part of FIRE’s annual “Best of Newsdesk” retrospective, where we search the archives to bring you stories from the past year worth a second look.

This one, exploring FIRE’s most frequently-asked question, originally ran June 23.


Over the past decade, public recognition of FIRE’s effective advocacy on behalf of student and faculty rights has increased significantly. We’re grateful for the heightened visibility; our hard-won prominence helps us reach more people in need of our help and win more victories.

Being a preeminent defender of campus rights has also meant that people want to know FIRE’s position on the latest campus speech controversy — and they want to know it now.

Even if reports about a new threat to student or faculty expression are only an hour or two old, and even if the alleged facts are still developing and unconfirmed, we inevitably field vigorous demands on social media insisting upon instant analysis (or, depending on who is making the demand, denunciation or affirmation) of a given situation. These inquires have become so common for us that The Chronicle of Higher Education’s March cover story on FIRE opened with a story about FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff fielding them (e.g., “where are you on this Drexel shit Greg”) the day after Christmas.

Sometimes the questions we receive about developing cases are good-faith efforts to find out what we think. But sometimes the breathless “WHERE’S FIRE ON THIS?!?!?!11” demands are transparent attempts to portray FIRE as insufficiently responsive to controversies involving the poster’s preferred political viewpoints. In truth, these call-outs reveal more about the questioner than FIRE. If these questioners paid attention to our work, they’d likely have seen a number of instances of us defending speakers with their preferred political commitments.

The latest installment of “Where’s FIRE?!” occurred Wednesday. That afternoon, the Hartford Courant reported that Trinity College professor Johnny Eric Williams had received death threats following Facebook posts about a Seattle, Washington police shooting and the shooting of Rep. Steve Scalise last week in Washington, D.C. (Inside Higher Ed’s Colleen Flaherty has more details about the posts in an article published yesterday.) The Courant reported that Trinity would close for the day following the threats against Williams and other threats against Trinity itself. Our analysis is here.

The initial Courant report appears to have been published online at 3:05 p.m. EDT. By 5:03 p.m., FIRE staffers had circulated it internally for discussion. Just 90 minutes later, the always-impatient internet sought immediate reaction; in this instance, Wesleyan University President Michael Roth tweeted at 6:29 p.m. that he was “Waiting for the @TheFIREorg statement supporting #FreeSpeech of @trinitycollege prof Johnny Eric Williams.” Having received no statement from FIRE (nor any “favorites” or retweets), he posted a similar tweet just before 10 p.m.: “Where are all the #FreeSpeech warriors when @trinitycollege Prof Johnny Eric Williams is threatened? @TheFIREorg @conor64 @glukianoff.”

The answer to Roth’s question — where’s FIRE? — is the same now as it always is: We’re right here. We’re collecting reports, contacting affected parties, reviewing the facts, and, if action is required, coordinating our response for maximum effectiveness.

The lack of an immediate public response from FIRE does not indicate indifference or inaction. We’re proud of our quick response time, but we’re not instantaneous — nor, for accuracy’s sake, should we be. Early reports are often incomplete or inaccurate. (This is especially true in the current media environment, which often rewards speed more than accuracy.) We at FIRE are deeply committed to getting the facts right and securing decisive victories for campus rights. In most cases, that takes more than a few hours and 140 characters.

And we can always use your help. Instead of asking where FIRE is on the latest controversy, we urge everyone to tell those affected by a controversy to contact FIRE immediately. If you’re a FIRE supporter, you already know that we’re excellent at what we do; if you’re a FIRE critic, let us prove to you (again) that we proudly defend everyone’s right to speak their mind, regardless of viewpoint.

Help us spread the word that the best way to achieve justice in the face of censorship is by sounding the FIRE alarm as soon as possible.