Higher education has a free speech problem. Let’s adjust the incentives.

July 30, 2020

The Free Speech Problem

It’s no secret that America’s colleges and universities are in trouble. “Cancel Culture,” groupthink, disinvitations, shout-downs, unjust terminations, suspensions for expressing unpopular viewpoints, and a host of other problems plague our nations’ institutions of higher education. 

As former senator Orrin Hatch wrote in a recent op-ed, America’s colleges and universities should be bastions of free speech, not instruments of the new, illiberal Inquisition. 

Every day, I talk to people who realize that the problem with our universities is serious. They share stories about how the universities they once loved are often more interested in peddling an ideological agenda than educating the students in their charge. Folks across the ideological spectrum are palpably frustrated.

We hear concerns from worried parents, distraught trustees, frustrated professors, outraged alumni, and some of FIRE’s most committed supporters. Many of them feel like attempts to reclaim our universities and to cultivate a true marketplace of ideas are hopeless. 

But I am here to tell you, they are not.

What Can be Done?

One thing we need to do is adjust the incentives. If universities continue to wantonly violate their constitutional duties or their institutional promises for free speech, they need to feel it where it hurts — in the wallet. 

That’s where FIRE comes in. If you donate to a university that violates free speech, you should make a contribution to FIRE instead. 

This FIRE program isn’t new. It has been around for years, and it has been remarkably effective.

To give you just one example, we had a donor whose son attended a prestigious southern school who took advantage of this program; she sent in a modest donation to FIRE instead of her son’s university. It resulted in the school changing their policies to earn FIRE’s prestigious “green-light” rating.

You might be thinking that this all sounds well and good, but how does it work?

You can indicate on our secure online donation form that your contribution is in lieu of a gift to a university, mail in this form, or give us a call at (215) 717-3473. We will then notify the school’s administration that until they fully protect individual rights on campus, they will no longer earn your charitable support (your identity and contribution will of course be kept strictly anonymous). FIRE will then offer our services, free of charge, to the school. We’ll help them earn your donations back by making the necessary policy changes to support and uphold free expression on their campus.

But why FIRE?

FIRE has a proven track record of success. We’ve been in the business of defending and sustaining the individual rights of students and faculty in higher education for over twenty years. FIRE has defended speech in the classroom, in the courts, and even in the halls of Congress. 

We’ve helped more than 74 schools adopt the Chicago Statement on Free Expression, secured policy change victories at more than 200 schools enrolling more than 4 million students, and we’ve secured hundreds of victories on behalf of students and professors whose rights have been violated on campus. 

FIRE is also fiercely nonpartisan. We defend constitutionally protected speech based on principle, not the content of the speech. Because we don’t have an ideological axe to grind, we work with people on both sides of the aisle.

We hope you will take advantage of this program and partner with us. Together, we can defend free speech, open inquiry, and academic freedom on college campuses—the very places where they are needed most.

If you’d like to discuss this further, you can contact FIRE’s development staff at support@thefire.org. You may also make a 100% tax-deductible donation to FIRE today at thefire.org/donate — and you’ll note there is a place to donate in lieu of a school.

If a school won’t protect free expression, we’ll make sure they know that choice is impacting their bottom line.