A pair of articles published online by The New York Times today—titled “Fighting for the First Amendment on America’s Campuses” and “Want a Copy of the Constitution? Now, That’s Controversial!”—reviews FIRE’s work defending free speech for students and faculty members nationwide.
Author Cecilia Capuzzi Simon interviewed FIRE’s Harvey Silverglate, Greg Lukianoff, Peter Bonilla, and me to provide readers with a sense of FIRE’s aims and methods. We’re proud of the victories we’ve won for free speech, and we’re very pleased to share our successes with the Times:
There are other groups that fight for First Amendment rights on campus, but none as vocal — or pushy — as FIRE, which has gone public with 421 interventions on behalf of aggrieved students and faculty members over almost two decades (many more have been resolved privately).
The organization, which has headquarters in Philadelphia across the street from Independence Hall, has nearly doubled its staff, to 35, in the last two years. In 2015, FIRE received 807 inquiries from students and professors seeking assistance in fighting perceived civil rights violations, up from 719 in 2014. About 50 will fit FIRE’s “narrow focus” on civil liberties defense, said Peter Bonilla, director of its individual rights defense program. The most egregious get litigated through FIRE’s two-year-old litigation program, which targets violations at public colleges (only public institutions, which are arms of the government, are directly bound by the First Amendment).
A lawsuit is FIRE’s tactic of last resort, especially when it comes to speech codes. In about 90 percent of cases, it uses “persuasion,” as staff members call it, to get administrators to revise or revoke questionable parts of a code. Depending on the level of “obstinacy,” Mr. Bonilla said, “the levers of publicity” — news releases, op-eds, media appearances — kick in. Most administrators, wary of bad press or an expensive suit, eliminate the speech codes.
As Mr. Lukianoff likes to note, FIRE has not lost a speech-code legal challenge yet. (He recounts many of them in his 2014 book, “Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate.”)
The group also works proactively with campuses. Its Policy Reform Project has a database of conduct guidelines from 440 four-year institutions, and it publishes a ranking of schools based on them. FIRE has slowly encouraged many on the list to rewrite their rules. In 2007, 75 percent had at least one policy restricting speech. Last year, that was down to 49 percent.
Of course, FIRE makes no apologies for being “vocal” and “pushy” in defense of student and faculty rights. Fighting for free speech requires tenacity.
Likewise, we understand that our approach has its critics amongst university administrators. For example, Simon spoke with Ohio University’s Martha Compton, a named defendant in our successful 2014 lawsuit against the school, who said that “administrators are often ‘put off by FIRE’s heavy-handedness.’” While Martha and I have different opinions about that suit, I’m happy to report that back in February, she and I made those differences the basis for a very productive and well-attended joint presentation at the Association for Student Conduct Administration’s annual conference. (Here’s the mandatory selfie.)
And as many student conduct professionals already know, FIRE is always happy to work proactively with administrators to ensure that institutional policies respect student and faculty speech before controversies arise, just like we’ve done with the University of Maryland, the University of Chicago, the University of Virginia, Purdue University, and many others. We love highlighting the work of administrators like Valeria Beasley-Ross and Melinda Sutton at the University of Mississippi, who are proving by example that dialogue is superior to censorship, even under difficult and tense circumstances.
That said, we were dismayed to read that some students don’t believe FIRE would fight for their right to free expression. Simon quotes a Yale student as saying she would “not seek out FIRE even though they say they are founded for reasons of defending students who feel their voice is lost,” because she believes FIRE is only interested in “a specific kind of lost voice,” one that is “racist and says things that are immoral.”
To be clear: FIRE defends student and faculty speech regardless of the viewpoint expressed or the speaker’s identity. If expression is protected by the First Amendment, FIRE defends it—period. That means we defend Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Democratic Socialists, and those affiliated with no party at all; Muslims, Jews, Christians, and atheists; environmental activists, animal rights activists, pro-choice activists, anti-rape activists, anti-war activists, and LGBT activists; free market advocates, pro-life activists, anti-immigration activists, and anti-affirmative action activists; student reporters, student government members, adjunct faculty, and tenured professors; and many, many more. FIRE even stands ready to protect the expressive rights of those who call for censorship, though we flatly disagree with those advocates’ goals.
As we made clear in our statement on last fall’s protests: “Supporters of virtually every political and social position under the sun may be found on our campuses, and may be relied upon to zealously advocate for their interests. FIRE’s job, in turn, is to zealously advocate for the right of all students and faculty to peacefully participate in the marketplace of ideas, not to pick sides.”
We look forward to demonstrating our commitment to free expression for students and faculty nationwide once again this fall.