Fighting rights violations by going public

FIRE’s approach to advocating on behalf of students and faculty usually involves a combination of private and public advocacy. For example, we often begin by writing private letters to institutions and, later, publish articles or press releases that advocate for a student or faculty member or group on campus. Each situation requires a unique approach. But after successfully defending campus rights for more than two decades, we have found that telling the story of how rights are being violated is usually the most effective way to encourage an institution to comply with its legal and moral obligation to protect student and faculty rights.

Since its founding, FIRE has subscribed to Justice Louis Brandeis’ philosophy that sunlight is “the best of disinfectants.” This means that we view public criticism of an institution as an important tool to put extra pressure on the institution to listen to our concerns — and, just as importantly, to deter them from violating the rights of others in the future.

To be clear, we take your privacy very seriously. We will never publicize private information that you provide to us without your permission unless we are ordered to do so by a court.

Frequently asked questions about going public

What does it mean to “go public”?

Going public means to publicize your situation. Common methods that 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 an outside outlet. The decision about which methods we use is based on various factors. These factors include the type of rights violation at issue, the level of public interest in the situation, and the school’s history of rights violations or lack thereof.

What are the benefits of going public?

Often, publicizing your situation will put additional pressure on the college or university to reverse course and protect 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 allies on and off campus, sympathetic alumni, and members of the public. As more individuals express their concern for your rights, the institution will face more pressure to reverse course. When an institution is publicly admonished for its actions or policies, it is usually more likely to do the right thing. Universities often can’t 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 student and faculty rights, regardless of 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 reframing 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, 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 will likely come out in the media, we strongly encourage you to let us intervene publicly at the outset so that someone on your side is telling your story. Our efforts will add a persuasive voice in your support. 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.

Will my institution retaliate against me if I go public?

It is unlikely that your college or university will retaliate against you for standing up for your rights. Indeed, it may be unlawful for the institution to do so. An institution is more likely to respect your rights when it knows that FIRE and others are watching and advocating on your behalf, especially when there is a public outcry. Institutions that are criticized for violating rights 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?

Yes. Our internal data show that when we’re able to publicize a situation, we are more likely to be effective in defending student and faculty rights. The additional pressure from FIRE supporters, who are vocally supportive of our mission, and the public has a positive impact in persuading an institution to right its 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 the rights of students and faculty, but others also have the right to criticize you and our advocacy. Others’ criticism is a form of “more speech,” which we — and the Supreme Court — prefer to 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. If there are issues with the statement of facts in our work, then we will issue an update or correction. However, if everything is sound, we will not remove our work from our website.

Will fighting back require a time commitment?

Regardless of whether you go public, defending your rights with FIRE’s help will require some time 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 fact-check our letter before it’s sent out to your college or university. If you go public, we may also need a quote or photo from you for a press release or blog post, or ask you if you are willing to speak with media outlets that aim to cover your situation. The necessary time commitment varies depending on the situation. However, going public does not generally require much more of a time 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?

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, we will respect that decision, but history suggests that it 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 framing and messaging for your case. We can also help advise you on speaking with the media — or handle media inquiries on our own — if all parties believe it would be beneficial for you to do so.