What is FIRE?
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, or FIRE, is a nonpartisan nonprofit foundation headquartered in Philadelphia. FIRE’s mission is to defend and sustain the individual rights of all Americans to free speech and free thought—the most essential qualities of liberty. FIRE educates Americans about the importance of these inalienable rights, promotes a culture of respect for these rights, and provides the means to preserve them.
FIRE recognizes that colleges and universities play a vital role in preserving free thought within a free society. To this end, we place a special emphasis on defending the individual rights of students and faculty members on our nation’s campuses, including freedom of speech, freedom of association, due process, legal equality, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience.
Do I have a case? What is a “case”?
By “case,” we mean an “issue,” “concern,” or “controversy” — any situation you suspect might represent a threat to your rights to freedom of speech, freedom of association, or sanctity of conscience. Additionally, if you are at an institution of higher education, we will consider cases involving due process, legal equality, and religious liberty. As a rule of thumb, if you’re thinking you might have a problem or a case, but you’re not sure, it’s better to get in contact with FIRE early. Even if we are unable to directly assist you at the time, we may be able to point you to useful resources. The issues we consider can sometimes be nuanced, and every situation where rights are threatened is unique. Submitting a case to us allows us to see whether we can help you. If we can, we will work with you on the best path forward.
How do I submit a case, and what should I provide?
Unless you are a faculty member at a public university or involved in student media, case submissions must be sent through our confidential online form. If you are a faculty member at a public university, you can call FIRE’s Faculty Legal Defense Fund Hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533) in addition to using the online form. Student journalists, student media, and their advisors can contact FIRE’s Student Press Freedom Initiative Hotline at 717-734-SPFI (7734) in addition to submitting online.
What kinds of cases does FIRE work on?
FIRE’s principal focus is on defending the freedoms of speech, expression, and conscience for all Americans. These rights are essential for democracy, scientific progress, artistic expression, social justice, peace, and our ability to live as authentic individuals. We will consider cases involving speech protected by the First Amendment, no matter the perspective or popularity of the speech or its speaker.
Because we recognize the vital role of universities and colleges in preserving free thought in a free society, we place a special emphasis on defending the rights of students, faculty members, student or faculty organizations, and student journalists and their advisors at public and private colleges and universities in the United States. In the context of higher education, we will consider cases involving freedom of speech, freedom of association, due process, legal equality, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience. On college campuses, FIRE does not take cases involving genuine questions of academic merit, which sometimes arise during tenure reviews and the grading of student work.
But I’m a [liberal, conservative, leftist, anarchist, socialist, animal rights activist, artist, nihilist, etc.]. Will you still defend me?
FIRE is proudly non-partisan. We defend Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Democratic Socialists, and those not affiliated with any party at all; Muslims, Jews, Christians, and atheists; environmental activists, animal rights activists, pro-choice activists, pro-life activists, anti-rape activists, anti-war activists, and LGBT activists; free market advocates, anti-immigration activists, and anti-affirmative action activists. We’ve defended student reporters, student government members, adjunct faculty, and tenured professors, and many, many more. Bottom line: If your rights have been violated, we will defend you.
What kind of help does FIRE provide? What can you do to help me?
Our approach may involve some combination of representing you in a legal capacity or engaging in public or private advocacy, such as writing letters, issuing press releases, sharing your story with media outlets, or representing you in a legal capacity. We understand that you may be undergoing a stressful period or may be worried about whether — or even how — to defend your rights. Each situation requires a unique approach, and we’ll work with you to figure out the approach with which you’re comfortable. But in order to defend your rights — and the rights of others who may not recognize threats to their rights or be able to stand up for themselves — you have to be willing to stand up for yourself.
Will this cost me anything?
No. FIRE is a charitable, non-profit organization and does not charge for any of its services.
What about my privacy?
FIRE takes your privacy seriously. If you contact us, we will not disclose non-public information that you share with us concerning your case submission or contact anyone (including your employer, institution, or government agency) about your dispute without your permission (or a court order). While FIRE’s advocacy efforts often benefit from bringing public pressure on institutions to correct their actions, we will not disclose non-public information or documents you provide to FIRE without your express consent. Contacting FIRE does not obligate you to go public. For more information on how we approach public advocacy when you (and FIRE) agree that it makes sense for you, click here.
What happens if my university, college, or employer finds out?
It’s highly unlikely that your institution or employer will retaliate against you for standing up for your rights. In many cases, particularly at public institutions, doing so may even be unlawful. If an institution is violating your rights, it’s more likely to be careful when it becomes apparent that third parties are aware of what the institution is doing.
Should I contact you from my work or school email address?
You should avoid doing so. Your ability to communicate with us privately may be at risk if you use an account that could be monitored by your school or employer. You should use a personal email address to communicate with us whenever possible.
I’m not a U.S. citizen. Can you still help me?
Yes, if your rights are threatened in the United States or by an American institution. The rights afforded by the First Amendment are not dependent on nationality, citizenship, or residency. Additionally, if you are a faculty member or student at a satellite campus of an American institution, we may be able to help.
What about private colleges? Does the First Amendment apply?
We defend rights at private universities and colleges, too. While private institutions are not obliged by the Constitution to guarantee students or faculty members particular rights, including freedom of expression, many advertise or promise freedom of expression, academic freedom, due process, and other rights. Those promises should be honored, and FIRE aims to make sure they are.
Are there other higher education issues I should be aware of?
Some of the other frequent issues we encounter in higher education matters:
- If you’re under investigation, or you’re suspended, expelled, or disciplined: You should contact us sooner rather than wait for the investigation to conclude. Investigations can have chilling effects on protected speech.
- How campus conduct systems compare to the legal system: Both the traditional legal system — criminal and civil courts — and the campus disciplinary system involve the adjudication of important rights with consequences that can last beyond your enrollment.
- Don’t skip meetings or hearings: If you’re unsure whether you have to attend, ask for clarification or ask for an extension to seek advice from others. Do not skip mandatory meetings or hearings, as it may be held against you.
- Don’t wait to get help: Whether you’re facing an investigation or need to appeal after being found responsible, get help as soon as you can. It’s often better to convince an institution to avoid making the wrong decision than to convince it that the decision it already made was wrong.
- If you’re not in trouble, but your institution’s policies imperil rights: If you’re interested in FIRE’s help in changing your institution’s policies — as opposed to seeking assistance with a specific application of those policies — we can help. Contact FIRE’s Policy Reform team using this form.
How long will it take for FIRE to review my submission?
We review the majority of case submissions within two business days. If this is an urgent matter that requires a faster response, please note the nature of the urgency in your case submission and we will attempt to review your case within that time frame, if possible. FIRE is a non-profit organization with limited resources, and review of a submission does not guarantee that we will be able to take your case or otherwise provide assistance. If you are in need of immediate assistance, you should consider retaining a local attorney. Student journalists facing urgent legal issues can call our 24/7 Student Press Freedom Initiative Hotline at 717-734-SPFI (7734) for rapid assistance. And faculty members at public institutions can call our Faculty Legal Defense Fund Hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533).
Will you be my lawyers?
Submitting a case to us or receiving a response to your case submission does not itself establish an attorney-client relationship. FIRE will not represent you as your lawyers in the absence of a signed letter of representation. Our team may be able to provide you with a variety of advocacy services, including writing letters, issuing press releases, sharing your story with media outlets, or connecting you with outside legal counsel. However, FIRE will only offer legal representation in a very narrow range of cases. Submitting a case to us using our confidential submission form does not guarantee that we will be able to help, but it’s the first step to see if we can help you.
I already have a lawyer or I am a lawyer. Can FIRE still help?
Please have your lawyer contact us directly. We can speak with them about how we might be able to help. We want to respect your relationship with your lawyer, and coordinating with them is the most effective way that we can help. If you are a lawyer, we may be able to help provide advice on strategy, consider the case for amicus participation, write a letter in support of your client, or help draw public attention to the matter. Attorneys interested in helping to defend First Amendment rights should join FIRE’s Legal Network.
I’m not the person whose rights are threatened. Should I still submit a case?
We’re always on the lookout for rights violations, and you may be aware of a situation that we haven’t seen yet. If you know of censorship, please contact us even if you’re not directly involved. We’ll see if we can make contact with the people who are involved — and if you know how to contact them, consider encouraging them to contact us! Because of our commitment to privacy, however, we probably will not be able to discuss the case with you beyond thanking you for bringing it to our attention.
Why didn’t FIRE take my case?
FIRE is a non-profit organization with limited resources. We can’t help in every case. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t have a case, and you may consider retaining a lawyer to advise you of your rights.
Why can’t I submit over the phone?
FIRE has two hotlines dedicated to specific purposes: a hotline for faculty members with issues involving freedom of expression and/or academic freedom at public universities and colleges (254-500-FLDF (3533)) and a hotline for student journalists, student media, and their advisors (717-734-SPFI (7734)).
For other matters or issues, FIRE only accepts submissions through our confidential case submission form. FIRE receives a tremendous number of requests for assistance each year. If you have an urgent need, please note the nature of the urgency in your online submission so that we may prioritize review.
When does it make sense to publicize my case?
Although it is not always the right decision to publicize a situation — depending on the level of public interest, the type of rights violation, and other factors — FIRE has found that we are usually more effective at defending rights when we are able to help draw public attention to a situation. To learn more about what it means to “go public,” see our “Fighting rights violations by going public” guide.
I have a question that isn’t answered here.
All the more reason to get in touch with us.