Eight Years at FIRE

October 2, 2009

Today is a big anniversary for me: eight years ago today I had my first full work day at FIRE.  I reflect on my initial experiences at FIRE in my forthcoming “From the President” in the Fall FIRE Quarterly, which I am including in full below:

Over eight years ago, I was hired to work for a small nonprofit in Philadelphia that few had ever heard of. It went by the audacious and ambitious name, FIRE. A couple of weeks before my first day, I flew in from San Francisco to find an apartment in what would become my new city. I landed at the Philadelphia airport at 9:10 AM on September 11, 2001.

Of course, I would soon discover that this was a day that would dramatically transform American and world history. Planes were grounded for the rest of that week, so I was left to ponder the frightening ramifications of that strange and terrible day mostly alone in an unfamiliar city. It also meant that I spent more time than I had anticipated with the tiny FIRE staff before my first day. I was deeply impressed at the quite remarkable mix of religious, political, and philosophical backgrounds represented by the staff. When I started as FIRE’s first Director of Legal and Public Advocacy a few weeks later, I was further impressed by the rigor, principle, and grand vision that co-founder Alan Charles Kors brought to the office.

In the wake of 9/11, in my first days working for FIRE, I was able to see these ideals at work. I wrote letters on behalf of two professors who were being forced out of their jobs, one for making an admittedly insensitive joke about the attack on the Pentagon and another for saying, in his politics class, that Muslims who did not condemn Islamic terrorism were tacitly supporting it. Indeed, it was eye-opening for me to discover that even as Ground Zero smoldered and American flags flew everywhere, on college campuses one was decidedly more likely to get in trouble for speech that was aggressively pro-American or anti-terrorist than for speech that was unpatriotic. In one famous case, students were made to take down American flags, American eagles, and images of Osama bin Laden in cross hairs because residence life officials assumed that some other students would find them offensive.

In those early days, there seemed to be someone working on cases in the FIRE office at all hours of the day and night. Every case was a hard fight, requiring a constant coordination of argument, outreach, factual analysis, legal research, campaigning, and engaging the media. Every case was an uphill battle; we were a tiny organization fighting an academic industry with billions of dollars at their disposal. Every case on behalf of student and faculty rights was fought hard, and every victory was sweet.

This year, I celebrate my fourth year as president of FIRE. While many things have changed, much remains the same. Though FIRE has grown substantially, it is still a small organization fighting a multi-billion-dollar industry that shows little respect for the rights, autonomy, and even private conscience of students and faculty members. Every victory is still sweet and hard-fought. I am proud that gradually our record of successes has grown and grown. Over the past ten years, FIRE has secured 155 public victories at 118 colleges and universities with a total enrollment of more than 2.5 million students, and we are directly responsible for changing 77 unconstitutional or repressive policies affecting more than 1.5 million students. I never forget that at the heart of each of these victories is a student, faculty member, or group of students who would have been denied their most basic rights had Alan Charles Kors and Harvey Silverglate not founded FIRE ten years ago.

I hope you will join us in celebrating FIRE’s ten years of fighting for our most basic American rights on campus, and I ask you to help us spread the word that absurd and atrocious violations of student and faculty rights happen with shocking frequency at those very institutions purportedly most committed to a free and open exchange of ideas. The more people who recognize that these violations are actually occurring, the better chance we will have in succeeding in our greatest goal: to change the culture on campus. Instead of universities that treat individual rights like an impediment to progress, we hope for the realization that individual rights and liberty are essential not only in education but also to the success of our free, liberal, pluralistic, democratic Republic.

Happy birthday, FIRE!