One of the nation’s premier First Amendment advocacy and legal groups fighting for free speech on the nation’s college campuses has announced a major expansion of its work beyond the campus to the culture at large, filling a widening void created by the ever-leftward march of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), organized in 1999, is re-branding itself as the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (emphasis added). Still to be known as FIRE, the group has undertaken a $75 million initiative to expand its role in the culture through litigation, public education and research.
It couldn’t come at a better time, according to the organization’s President and CEO Greg Lukianoff.
“America needs a new nonpartisan defender of free speech that will advocate unapologetically for this fundamental human right in both the court of law and the court of public opinion,” said Lukianoff in a press release. “FIRE has a proven track record of defeating censorship on campus. We are excited to now bring that same tireless advocacy to fighting censorship off campus.”
In its 23 years of existence, FIRE notes, it has won more than 500 direct advocacy victories on behalf of college students and faculty members (with thousands more behind-the-scenes resolutions). In addition, it has obtained 425 campus policy changes affecting five million students, helped pass free-speech legislation in 20 states, and helped to significantly reduce the prevalence of restrictive campus speech codes.
So, why the expansion of its mission?
“To say the least, we have not solved the campus free-speech problem, but we started to realize if we wanted to save free speech on campus we have to start earlier and we have to do things not on campus,” Lukianoff told Politico.
At a time when voices on the left want to shut down free speech because it offends their sensibilities and is deemed “violence,” Lukianoff is more afraid of the corporate censors than those who would abuse free speech.
“Thinking that free speech is the problem here is, I think, missing the point,” Lukianoff said. “Do I believe bad actors are abusing this? I do. … It’s always been the case that some people have believed absolutely crazy things. … I’m more afraid of top-down attempts to control Twitter than I am of the cultural harm it produces.”
The country used to have a nonpartisan defender of free speech in the ACLU, which in 1977 famously represented the right of a neo-Nazi hate group to march in the predominantly Jewish town of Skokie, Illinois, a Chicago suburb, despite public support from absolutely no one.
These days, however, the ACLU picks and chooses who it will defend based on its internal “values,” and speech that conflicts with its other progressive priorities such as abortion and LGBT issues is, more often than not, left to fend for itself.
And the ACLU is unapologetic about that.
“The guidelines set forth below are designed to help ensure that we take into consideration the external and internal impact of any decision to accept or decline a case that presents a conflict among our values and priorities,” the guidelines state. “They are not, by themselves, intended to determine a particular result on any particular set of competing values, but instead to ensure that the organization engages in a nuanced and intentional consideration of the competing interests when these situations arise.”
Even former ACLU Executive Director, Ira Glasser, who served as the head of that organization from 1978 to 2001, criticized the partisan nature of today’s ACLU when he appeared recently on Real Time with Bill Maher to talk with the liberal host. Both Maher and Glasser appeared to be on the same page about the ACLU’s abandonment of its core mission to defend free speech.
“It (the ACLU) was once a stalwart defender of free speech and civil liberties. Is it still that?” Maher asked.
“Not as much,” Glasser replied, citing the new ACLU guidelines. “Before [the ACLU’s lawyers] take a case, they have to make sure that the speech doesn’t offend or threaten other civil liberties’ values. In other words, before they defend your free speech rights they want to see what you’re going to say.”
Glasser now serves on a FIRE advisory board, and Politico reports that Glasser is the one who strongly encouraged FIRE to broaden its free-speech work in part because the ACLU seems to be abdicating that role.
“Once the ACLU backs off its traditional role, who else is there?” Glasser asked.
Well, now there’s FIRE.
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