Wikipedia and Mud-Slinging

March 24, 2008

Sadly, once again a critic has popped up accusing FIRE of being nothing more than a right-wing organization.

What makes this case somewhat different and more troubling, however, is that the critic in question is an editor on FIRE’s Wikipedia page, and, therefore, has had a disproportionate effect on how FIRE is represented on the Internet. As many have lamented, the problem with Wikipedia is that it empowers the Internet-obsessive, those with personal axes to grind, and the unswervingly ideological to define e-reality.

Simon DeDeo’s account of FIRE has many errors. He says that the liberal founder of FIRE is no longer involved with the organization. Untrue. Harvey Silverglate is not only still involved with us, he is the Chairman of our Board. DeDeo also claims we defended Ward Churchill merely for plagiarism. Untrue. We defended Ward Churchill’s free speech rights both extensively and aggressively, but also recognized that when he was found guilty of plagiarism, the school was within its rights to terminate him. DeDeo finds it somehow damning that we “cite” FrontPage Mag, when even a quick perusal of our “In The News” page would demonstrate that we try to cite all mentions of FIRE in the media, whatever end of the political spectrum they come from. Further, we are not staffed “entirely by right-wing ideologues.” That’s laughable. I am very proud of the fact that FIRE is an unusually politically balanced organization. Of our lawyers on staff, one is a Republican, one is a staunch libertarian, one is a committed moderate, and two (including me) are Democrats. As I wrote almost exactly a year ago, in the face of similar accusations: “I have never before worked in an office (or even heard of one) where Democrats, Republicans, libertarians, Greens, atheists, Jews (from liberal to orthodox), agnostics, Muslims, and evangelical Christians pull together for a common cause.” I am deeply proud of this fact.

Making it personal, DeDeo also turns his (narrow) sights on me, seemingly incredulous that I have the audacity to count myself as a Democrat just because I do not have an extensive history of donating money to the Democratic Party. This is true: I do tend to spend my charitable contributions on local theater (as my bio indicates, though I live in New York City, I am on the board of Philadelphia’s Theater Exile). It should be noted, however, that donor status is a lousy way to gauge someone’s politics. DeDeo himself has “only” given $200 (to Howard Dean) in the past 4 years but I am not about to question his political leanings. I’ll take him at his word.

Finally, DeDeo accuses FIRE of being a “classic example” of an “astroturf” organizationi.e., a fake grassroots organization, designed to look like something it isn’t. This makes no sense. First of all, as a non-profit, non-partisan advocacy group, FIRE does not pretend to be a grassroots organization, working from the bottom up. We are a watchdog organization, founded by a civil rights lawyer and a professor. (If you want to see grassroots, however, check out our ever-growing Campus Freedom Network.) But even more importantly, try telling a decidedly non-right-wing student like Hayden Barnes that FIRE’s staff members are “keen to wage a culture war on the leftists they see at every turn.” Or try telling all the state and local ACLUs we’ve worked with that FIRE is little more than some kind of right-wing front group. It may make for a quick way to get your blog entry more views, but that does not make these kind of easy accusations any more true.

Really, DeDeo’s whole enterprise is silly. As I wrote before:

If FIRE is a secret right-wing front group, this sinister secret has apparently been hidden from me. When I started as FIRE’s first Director of Legal and Public Advocacy back in 2001, my very first letter defended the rights of University of New Mexico Professor Richard Berthold, under attack for the following statement: “Anyone who can blow up the Pentagon has my vote.” My first TV appearance was to defend the free speech and due process rights of then-University of South Florida Professor Sami Al-Arian. I have appeared on Fox News defending the rights of Ward Churchill (who called the World Trade Center victims “little Eichmanns”) and Nicholas DeGenova (“I pray for a million Mogadishus”), and debated Pat Buchanan about tiny and isolated “free speech zones” at Texas Tech. As for my background, before graduating law school I worked for such crazy right-wing outfits as the ACLU of Northern California, the EnvironMentors Project in Washington, D.C., the Organization for Aid to Refugees in Prague, and the Fulbright program.

Has DeDeo noticed that FIRE has been front and center through some of the least popular cases involving protecting liberal speech? Most recently, no oneright, left or centerwas a fan of our case at Colorado State University, where we defended an editorial that read in its entirety: “TASER THIS: FUCK BUSH.”

But this is not about proving some kind of liberal credentials for myself or FIRE. I have said it before and I will say it again: FIRE is a non-partisan group, hard as that can be to understand.

Really, all I would ask of DeDeo is that he follow our cases more carefully. I have been deeply frustrated by the liberal blogosphere’s failure to take note of cases like our recent fight at Valdosta State Universitywhere an environmentally-minded liberal student was expelled for a collage protesting a parking garageor at Brandeiswhere a liberal professor is in trouble for explaining and criticizing the use of the word “wetback.” It is as if the country has become so hopelessly polarized that bloggers like DeDeo won’t even pay attention when groups he clearly dislikes take up causes he apparently deeply believes in.

And even if DeDeo is only interested in helping bring attention to the liberal or progressive FIRE cases, that is just fine. He can be as partisan as he likes. Meanwhile, FIRE will continue to defend people across the political spectrum, just as we have throughout our entire existence.

Which brings me to DeDeo’s emphasis on the fact that FIRE has worked with the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian litigation group, which he cites as an example of our right-wing ties. It is true; we have happily worked with the ADF to successfully challenge unconstitutional speech codes at schools like San Francisco State University. We have also worked with the ACLUs of Nevada, Eastern Missouri, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Southern California, and we work on a regular basis with the Student Press Law Center. We are proud to have written amicus briefs that have brought together these groups in common cause with Co-Star, CampusFreedom.Org, David Horowitz’s Students for Academic Freedom, the Christian Legal Society and Feminists for Free Expression. We think that our ability to unite such an ideologically diverse coalition of groups is proof not only that FIRE is a truly non-partisan group, but of the fact that the First Amendment’s protections are crucial for all Americans, regardless of belief or ideology. Defending free speech is bigger than “left” or “right.”

The most important thing I need to say to people like Simon DeDeo is simply this: No matter how much you want to wish it away, there is a serious problem on campus, far worse than what you choose to characterize as an “occasional college administration free-speech misstep.” The rights of students and faculty members are abused on a regular basis. FIRE can point to hundreds of cases; indeed, our case archive is just the tip of the iceberg. Most colleges maintain unconstitutional speech codes. FIRE’s experience has been that you are more likely to get in trouble on campus if you are socially conservative, make un-PC jokes, or do or say something deemed “insensitive.” Liberals also run afoul of campus bureaucrats, and when they do, they too are punished utilizing the language of “tolerance” and “diversity.” You can disagree with this assessment, you can do your best to disprove it, but if after reviewing case after case every year, you aren’t convinced that there is a problem on campus, you should ask yourself if you are honestly looking at the facts, or if you are blinded by your own ideology.

And if you are so utterly convinced that FIRE harbors pernicious motivations that you simply cannot be objective, do you really think you should be editing FIRE’s Wikipedia page?

I’d be happy to talk to you, Simon DeDeo. I can be reached at at any time. Meanwhile, please take another look at our cases and seriously consider the possibility that there might be a real and on-going problem on campusand that students and faculty members from all points on the ideological spectrum need a group like FIRE to help them.