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Fighting rights violations by going public

FIRE’s holistic approach to defending rights typically involves a combination of private and public advocacy. We may write demand letters to institutions, file a lawsuit, publish articles or press releases, or provide public commentary that advocates for individuals’ rights. Each situation requires a unique approach, and given our limited mission and resources and the demand for our assistance, we cannot help everyone. But after successfully defending civil liberties for more than two decades, we have found that one of the most effective ways to encourage institutions to comply with their legal and moral obligations is to tell the story of how these injustices impact people’s lives.

Since its founding, FIRE has subscribed to Justice Louis Brandeis’ philosophy that sunlight is “the best of disinfectants.” We view public criticism as an important tool in compelling institutions to stop violating expressive rights — and, just as importantly, to deter them from violating the rights of others in the future. In fact, we have a higher success rate for cases we publicize. That’s why, when you bring us your case, we will likely encourage you to go public. Of course, we take your privacy very seriously. We will never publicize private information that you provide to us without your permission, except in the highly unlikely event we are ordered to do so by a court. (You can read more about that here.)

Frequently asked questions about going public

What does it mean to “go public”?

“Going public” means publicizing your situation. Common methods FIRE uses to publicize our work are writing articles, commenting to the media, issuing press releases, posting on social media, or pitching an op-ed or feature story to a media outlet. We decide what methods would be best-suited to your case based on a variety of factors, including the type of rights violation at issue and the level of public interest in the situation.

What are the benefits of going public?

Publicizing your situation puts additional pressure on the party with whom you have a dispute to reverse course and honor your rights. There are many news outlets that cover issues related to FIRE’s mission, and allowing FIRE to publicize your case may attract the attention of these outlets, along with allied members of the public. As more individuals express their concern for your rights, institutions will face more pressure to reverse course. Since our founding in 1999, we’ve consistently found that those who violate expressive rights often will not defend in public the rights violations they commit in private.

Exposing abuses to the public is also important because it means you are standing up not only for your own rights, but also for the rights of others. If institutions are aware that violating rights will bring them negative publicity, they’ll be more likely to think twice before violating someone else’s rights in the future. Not everyone is in a position to be able to publicly defend their rights, so if you can, you should.

When FIRE is able to publicize a situation, we set the terms of the debate in a way that is fair but persuasive. FIRE works to frame the situation from the perspective of protecting expressive rights, regardless of the viewpoint offered or controversy generated by the underlying expression. If, on the other hand, FIRE is not the first to publicize your case, we may then face the additional challenge of trying to untangle the story from a partisan lens or reframe the situation as a violation of your rights, rather than something others may find egregious or offensive. It’s better to be proactive and set the tone by going public with FIRE rather than wait for someone else, who may not be sympathetic to your case, to leak or publicize the situation first.

If my situation is already public, can I keep FIRE’s advocacy private?

We strongly believe that if a case is already public or may soon become public, it’s best to have FIRE — your ally in the pursuit of justice — publicly support you. It is best to have your story out there from your perspective, from the outset, and to give FIRE the ability to explain your situation as well as why an institution’s actions are unlawful or immoral. That said, FIRE takes your privacy seriously, and we’re happy to discuss any concerns you may have regarding additional publicity.

When should I go public?

It depends. If your case is already in the media or is likely to become public, we strongly encourage you to let us intervene publicly at the outset so that someone on your side is telling your story first and setting the terms of the debate. If we believe it would be most effective to communicate privately, then we may suggest holding off on going public until after we have attempted private advocacy or suggest not going public at all.

FIRE always exercises considered judgment, drawing on more than 20 year of experience, in advocating for your rights.

Will I experience retaliation if I go public?

In our experience, we have found that many people are worried about retaliation for standing up for their rights. We regularly navigate those risks. While every situation is different, we have found that it is unlikely that your institution — or your employer, if you work for a government actor or for a private university or college — will retaliate against you for standing up for your rights. Indeed, it may be unlawful for them to do so. Institutions and public employers may be more likely to respect your rights when they know that FIRE and others are watching and advocating on your behalf, especially when there is a public outcry. When institutions and government bodies are criticized for violating rights, they are usually aware that doing more to violate rights will be harmful to their reputations and, potentially, their pocketbooks.

Are we more likely to succeed if I go public?

Usually, yes, although every situation is unique. Our internal data show that when we’re able to publicize a situation, we are more likely to be effective in defending rights. The additional pressure from FIRE supporters, who are vocally supportive of our mission, and the public has a positive impact in persuading bad actors to right their wrongs.

Will I face criticism if I go public? How can FIRE help?

While going public may elicit strong support for your case, you also may face criticism from those who disagree with you. FIRE defends expressive rights, which includes the right to engage in criticism of speech or speakers, some of which may be pointed or uncomfortable. Others’ criticism is a form of “more speech,” which we — and the Supreme Court — prefer over censorship. With FIRE helping to explain your right to speech, that may answer some of the points that critics might raise, which often focus on whether you have the right to express your views — and you do.

Would FIRE be able to take down blogs or materials later?

FIRE does not remove publicity items — like blog entries, letters, press releases, or other materials — after they are published.

What is required of me in enlisting FIRE to help me fight back?

Regardless of whether you go public, defending your rights with FIRE’s help will require some effort from you. You will have to find information and documents to ensure that FIRE has all of the information necessary to effectively advocate on your behalf. This may include communicating with FIRE staff, providing relevant documents, and providing a timeline of what occurred. You will also need to be an active participant in our efforts to fact-check our advocacy or help prepare publicity. The necessary commitment varies depending on the situation. However, going public does not generally require much more of a commitment if we are already advocating for you privately.

How much attention will I get?

It depends. Some matters draw attention from the public, legislatures, and media outlets. Some may only draw local or community attention, but not widespread public debate. The amount of attention that your situation — and you — get depends on many factors, including the news cycle, the facts of your situation, and whether the case is already a big story.

Is it always the best decision to go public?

Because every situation is unique, sometimes it is not the best decision to go public, and FIRE will let you know if we think your situation should remain private. We will not offer to publicize your situation if we believe that it will not help you achieve justice in your case. If you don’t believe that it would be helpful to go public and your case is not already publicly known, we will respect that decision. History suggests, however, that keeping your case private will impair our ability to be successful on your behalf. Ultimately, though, it is your decision.

Will FIRE give advice about how to frame my situation publicly?

Yes. We are very experienced in this area and will work to provide the best possible messaging for your case. We can also help advise you on speaking with the media — or handle media inquiries for you.