Looking back at 2019 with FIRE’s executive director

December 27, 2019

We’re not supposed to be here anymore.

At least that was the thought when we were founded 20 years ago. FIRE co-founder Harvey Silverglate put it best: “There is, of course, a sad side to FIRE’s longevity.”

When he and Alan Charles Kors co-founded FIRE in 1999, they believed it “would be a rather short-lived undertaking: Our message and mission carried such a powerful logic that, surely, it would take only a few short years before we succeeded in our goal of restoring liberty and procedural decency to academia.”

Two decades on, we’re still here. And we’re still surprised by the lengths administrators, students, faculty members, campus police, government officials — just about everyone — will go to to censor speech they dislike. Our work, rather than diminishing, is increasing.

Let’s look back at 2019. 

Administrators at a public university in Missouri told Naomi she couldn’t start a vegan club on campus because of the “emotional risk” it could pose to other students who might be affected by the club’s activities. It turns out that for years the college has been rejecting dozens of prospective student groups, including those advocating for first-generation college students, transgender students, and children with cancer. Now, FIRE and Naomi are fighting back.

Mike was told by his Mississippi college that he couldn’t talk about marijuana legislation or encourage students to express their rights by writing whatever they liked on a giant beach ball —  a “free speech ball.” Campus police actually told him he should have been smarter than to exercise his First Amendment rights. FIRE sued the college, which has so far refused to budge. It shouldn’t take a lawsuit to vindicate your speech rights. 

Laurie, a professor in New York, faced charges of racial discrimination for quoting literary icon James Baldwin during a classroom discussion on race. FIRE fought back on Laurie’s behalf, forcing the college to quickly back down.

Thanks to supporters like you, we’ve been able to defend students and professors like Naomi, Mike, and Laurie, who censors have tried to bully into silence.

While some absurdly argue that free speech is just fine on our campuses, or even that censorship is a good thing (as long as it’s aimed at people they don’t like, of course), the result of their efforts to defend decades of putting politics and power over people and principle are plain for all to see. In 2019, for the first time in FIRE’s history, we reviewed more than 1,000 cases of students and faculty needing FIRE’s help. That’s almost triple the number from 12 years ago. This year our interventions restored the speech rights of students and faculty members across the political — and nonpolitical — spectrum. Here are just a few of the real people whose speech rights FIRE successfully defended in 2019:

  • a group of students in Massachusetts whose club was denied recognition by the student government for its pro-Israeli viewpoints,
  • a teaching assistant in Georgia who was investigated for constitutionally-protected comments he made about white people on social media,
  • students in Illinois who were punished for discussing marijuana legalization outside of a free speech zone — a zone the college announced was abolished 16 years ago
  • students in California who were told they could not fly a pro-Second Amendment flag at a recruitment fair, 
  • a Connecticut student who was repeatedly pressured by administrators to remove a Facebook post in which he asked for an apology from an unidentified student who called him a racial slur after a Super Bowl party,
  • members of more than a dozen Greek and athletic organizations in Ohio, all of whom received an unconstitutional collective punishment barring any communication among members, after one person allegedly yelled a racial slur,
  • and student journalists in multiple states who were subjected to policies that made it harder for them to do their job.

We’ve also been busy working with colleges across the country to implement speech-protective policies. That’s why, for the first time, the number of institutions earning FIRE’s highest, “green light” speech code rating hit 52 — meaning that more than 1,000,000 students can breathe easier knowing their school’s policies respect free expression. Also for the first time, two states are home to only green light-rated institutions: Arizona and Mississippi. 

Our legislative team traveled the country to meet with legislators, chalking up victories with free speech bills in Alabama, Kentucky, South Dakota, and Texas supported by both Republicans and Democrats.

FIRE is also doing the job too many colleges won’t do: teaching students about their rights as Americans and how to defend them. Our FIRE Student Network hosted conferences in Boulder, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Orlando to teach nearly 250 student attendees about free speech and due process. FIRE even distributed thousands of copies of “Finding Your Voice,” our free speech comic book, to high school students around the country. (Get your copy today!) And just last month, we hosted our third annual faculty conference.

All of this happened as FIRE celebrated our 20th anniversary.

As we go into 2020, one of our most important projects is pending: we’re awaiting the final Title IX regulations from the Department of Education. Based on proposed regulations released earlier this year, we believe the new framework will significantly bolster student rights. This would be a huge win for students, whose due process rights have been treated as a joke in recent years. (Our just-released report on due process at America’s top colleges shows why this reform is desperately needed.)

This review gives just a glimpse at FIRE’s impact this year. Yet, despite our best efforts to put ourselves out of business, we’re still here — and unfortunately, it looks like we’re needed more now than ever. As our caseload and scope grows, so too does our dedication to defending the individual liberties that I know we all believe in. Thank you for your support. Here’s to a prosperous and free 2020!

Sincerely,

Robert L. Shibley

Executive Director, FIRE