Table of Contents

Winning hearts and minds: FIRE celebrates first year of expanded free speech advocacy

Greg Lukianoff

FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff delivers remarks at the 2023 FIRE Gala.

On June 6, 2022, FIRE announced the biggest news in its 25-year history. Initially an organization focused exclusively on free speech and due process issues in higher ed, FIRE expanded the scope of its mission to become the premier defender of free expression nationwide. 

One year later, we’re working tirelessly on behalf of individuals of all backgrounds and perspectives, protecting free speech throughout the country without fear, favor, or apology. And we already have a lot to show for our efforts. 

Amping up our advocacy

Since the expansion announcement, FIRE has notched win after win in cases across the United States.

In Pennsylvania, we recently secured $91,000 in damages and attorneys’ fees for two political campaigners unjustly barred from collecting campaign signatures in a public park. In the Empire State and beyond, we protected online speech when a judge halted enforcement of a New York law that would have forced website owners to police what bloggers post. And in Michigan, we’re pleased to report that while our case against the City of Eastpointe is ongoing, the mayor’s censorial behavior is not: In December 2022, thanks to our dogged defense of Eastpointers’ free speech rights, a federal court ordered her to stop suppressing criticism.

“I’m grateful for FIRE contacting me, and making sure that not just those of us involved in the lawsuit have our rights protected, but people in every community across the nation,” said Eastpointe plaintiff Mary Hall-Rayford.

Mayor Owens of Eastpointe, Michigan

FIRE sues Michigan mayor who abused power, shouted down constituents at city council meeting

Press Release

FIRE filed a lawsuit against the mayor of Eastpointe, Michigan, for censoring residents during public comment in city council meetings.

Read More

Proving our ability to take on that responsibility, we’re also suing on behalf of a U.S. army veteran arrested for holding a “God Bless the Homeless Vets” sign on public property and two K-12 students ordered by their principal to remove sweatshirts featuring the political slogan, “Let’s Go Brandon.” And we’ve filed numerous amicus curiae briefs in key First Amendment cases, defending — among other things — the right to parody, to freedom of association, and to speak up at public school board meetings.

FIRE’s efforts on campus have expanded alongside our broader advocacy. Since the expansion, we achieved 97 case victories for students and faculty whose rights were threatened; worked with college administrators to improve 48 campus speech policies on 24 campuses; opposed the Biden administration’s efforts to roll back due process protections on campus; introduced model legislation to combat the use of diversity, equity, and inclusion statements as political litmus tests in faculty hiring; and launched four campus lawsuits.

Notably, our efforts on behalf of a University of South Florida student and professor led a judge to halt enforcement of key provisions of Florida’s Stop WOKE Act, enabling higher ed students and faculty to freely discuss concepts related to race and sex in the classroom.

We’re optimistic that FIRE’s advocacy will continue to pay off, leaving communities across the U.S. richer places for dialogue and debate than they were before our assistance. 

Investing in the future of free speech

Seeing the positive difference we have made together with our allies and supporters inspires us to continue apace. Moving forward, we aim to make an even bigger impact by arming more Americans with the knowledge necessary to continue the fight for free speech.

On the higher education front, FIRE is conducting extensive research on campuses nationwide, providing people with indispensable insight into the — often dire — state of free speech at our nation’s colleges and universities. Our forthcoming “College Free Speech Rankings” report, for example, will be our biggest yet, including the voices of approximately 55,000 students at more than 250 schools nationwide and providing an inside look at how the next generation thinks about expressive rights.

More and more, we’re leveraging our growing influence to encourage institutions and their leaders to quickly reverse censorial proposals. And with the power of supporters speaking with us, we’ve already had great success.

We’ve also facilitated opportunities for free speech advocates to meet, learn from, and work with one another. Since the expansion, FIRE’s student network grew to more than 7,500 currently enrolled members; our faculty network grew to more than 3,700 members; and we helped motivated alumni establish pro-free speech alumni groups at nine schools including Williams College; University of California, Los Angeles; and Grove City College. In turn, these groups are sparking incredible improvements at their alma maters.

To ensure our message extends beyond the campus walls, we took it onto the airwaves and into the streets. Coinciding with the expansion, we launched “Faces of Free Speech,” a national ad campaign featuring students and faculty whose rights FIRE helped defend and a stirring story from former NFL player Nate Boyer. We also secured billboard ads in 16 major cities, including New York City’s Times Square.

In our home city of Philadelphia, FIRE was everywhere. Our “surround sound” campaign spanned television, radio, social media, and billboards. We even enlisted the world-famous Pat’s and Geno’s to give away 1,791 cheesesteaks in celebration of the 1791 ratification of the First Amendment.

The result? A near-250% increase in FIRE’s brand awareness in the City of Brotherly Love.

FIRE cheesesteak event
FIRE Vice President of Communications Matthew Harwood and Ben Franklin giving away cheesesteaks at Geno's in Philadelphia.

“Americans need to know we will have their backs if their free speech rights are violated,” said Executive Vice President Nico Perrino. “Our public awareness campaigns have helped position FIRE as the leader of the 21st century free speech movement. Every day we hear from more and more Americans who are inspired by our message of principled, unapologetic free speech advocacy and who want to join the cause.”

Indeed, since June 2022, our email list attracted more than 190,000 new subscribers, our social media accounts gained more than 120,000 new followers, and more than 3.7 million people visited our website. FIRE’s work was mentioned more than 7,000 times in media outlets across the country including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal. And our videos on YouTube and TikTok amassed more than 15 million views.

It’s safe to say: The message is resonating.

Changing the culture

With great publicity comes great opportunity. 

More and more, we’re leveraging our growing influence to encourage institutions and their leaders to quickly reverse censorial proposals. And with the power of supporters speaking with us, we’ve already had great success.

In April, we rallied nearly 1,700 people to email Puffin Books when it announced that it would scrub Roald Dahl’s classic children’s books of “offensive” language. The company took note, opting to reverse course and preserve the original editions of books like “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Matilda” alongside the “sensitized” versions. In May, we mobilized hundreds of people to write to the Board of Mayor and Alderman of Franklin, Tennessee, encouraging it to withdraw an unconstitutional “community decency” policy that would have stifled all manner of speech. Again, expressive rights emerged victorious.

Now, more than ever, a cultural shift is needed. We must reclaim the value of free speech in principle and practice to ensure that all Americans — no matter their views — continue to enjoy the right to speak, listen, teach, learn, and think freely.

While not every case goes this way, we’re heartened by how many do. This year, we made waves, giving us hope that in upcoming years, we may turn the tide.

FIRE took on this expanded role at a critical time. In 2022, 145 scholars were targeted — sometimes by their own colleagues — for their free expression, and almost two-thirds of these sanction attempts resulted in employment termination. Meanwhile, concerning percentages of college students reported finding it acceptable to disrupt campus speakers — and some proved it, substantially disrupting a federal judge, shouting down a conservative commentator, and even chasing a former NCAA swimmer down a hallway after she spoke about gender in sports. At the same time, public officials are cracking down on LGBTQ-themed library books and drag attire in public buildings by engaging in practices or advocating for laws that clearly violate the First Amendment.

Woman speaking through a megaphone

Scholars Under Fire: Attempts to Sanction Scholars from 2000 to 2022


In this report, we explore the phenomenon of “cancel culture” as it applies to scholars in higher education institutions across the country.

Read More

You can understand why so many Americans are afraid to express themselves in school, at work, online, and even in their own communities.

Now, more than ever, a cultural shift is needed. We must reclaim the value of free speech in principle and practice to ensure that all Americans — no matter their views — continue to enjoy the right to speak, listen, teach, learn, and think freely.

“We need to remind older Americans that freedom of speech is still a value worth fighting for,” said FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff at the time of the expansion. “And we need to teach younger Americans that everything from scientific progress, to artistic expression, to social justice, peace, and living authentic lives requires the staunch protection of freedom of speech for all.”

One year later, we’ve made great strides toward realizing this vision — and we’re just getting started. Today, we’re more determined than ever to protect free speech wherever it’s threatened, upholding Americans’ most fundamental right.

Recent Articles

FIRE’s award-winning Newsdesk covers the free speech news you need to stay informed.