Foundation for Individual Rights in Education
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, is an American organization that defends individual rights, especially the right to free speech, in higher education. Much like the ACLU, this often leads to them defending unpopular or controversial speech. This has led to perceptions of disproportionately defending conservative speech, but this is probably due to liberal speech being less likely to require defending at universities, as they tend to be more left-leaning.
School ratings system
FIRE maintains a list of ratings of college speech policies:
- Green: "policies do not seriously imperil speech"
- Yellow: "policies restrict a more limited amount of protected expression"
- Red: "has at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech"
- Blue: "Warning: Does Not Promise Free Speech"
This applies equally to private and public universities, though private universities are not bound by the First Amendment, and so FIRE only holds them accountable to their own promises. Accordingly, FIRE has been criticized for not giving a Red rating to private schools with oppressive limitations on speech (which are mostly conservative Christian schools).
In response, FIRE points out that the First Amendment also protects freedom of association, which gives private colleges (though, in California, only private and non-secular colleges) the right to make whatever stupid rules they want: "Liberty University makes it extraordinarily clear to its students that they are giving up all manner of freedoms that they would enjoy at a public college. ... Incoming Liberty students are knowingly contracting to give up certain rights — this is what the law refers to as 'informed consent.'"
FIRE maintains a list of "disinvitations": attempts by students and faculty to prevent or obstruct an invited speaker from speaking at the university. As of 2016, the top ten most disinvited speakers are:
- Milo Yiannopoulos (10)
- Bill Ayers (8)
- George W. Bush (7)
- Ward Churchill (7)
- Norman Finkelstein (6)
- Ben Carson (5)
- David Horowitz (5)
- Ann Coulter (4)
- Condoleezza Rice (4)
- Madeleine Albright (4)
While FIRE frames these all as "censorship", about 43% of the incidents are protests of commencement speeches, which aren't typically political speech at all; just a famous person saying "Good luck class!" and possibly taking home a check for tens of thousands of dollars, so it's understandable that students might not want a highly-disliked speaker getting that honor.
They also track whether the protesters are "from the left" or "from the right" of the speaker's political views (though a left-wing speaker being protested for being "too conservative" would be considered "from the left", for instance). As of 2017, "from the left" is winning by a sizeable margin:
- 60% from the left
- 30% from the right
- 10% N/A
All it takes to get added to the disinvitation list about which colleges are inhibiting the First Amendment is for a speaker to be protested, even if the protesters are non-students from off campus. Why a free speech advocacy group would imply that protesters exercising their right to free speech are impeding free speech is a mystery perhaps best left to the ages. However, when calculating the number of people actually disinvited, it turns out that someone who has been disinvited only has a roughly 52% chance of having been disinvited because of the Left.
Also note that even the N/A category is somewhat misleading. It's hard to see concerns over whether or not Mr. Rogers is a mature enough speaker as political in nature. It is much easier to suspect there is some politically-related motivation behind disinviting someone because they endorsed Democratic political candidates or because a college is Evangelical and they don't want a Mormon to be a speaker.
Work against campus sexual assault reform
One of the focuses of FIRE is protecting due process rights on campus. Colleges, even public colleges, have historically enjoyed greater latitude in ability to punish individuals who are caught breaking campus rules. Campus judicial tribunals often don't need to prove a breach of campus rules "beyond a reasonable doubt", meaning they can punish someone for a breach even if the evidence isn't there to actually convict them of a criminal offense in a court of law. The crux of the controversy is the degree to which campus tribunals can assume the powers of the criminal justice system to convict for criminal offenses. Whereas you might need to prove someone committed a rape with over 98 or 99 percent certainty to punish them in a court, you may only need 51 percent certainty in a tribunal. However, this leads to a situation where a state government, through a publicly-run institution, can punish someone without having given them a real trial. In doing so they can also force accused students to provide evidence without the right to counsel, which can then be used against them in a court of law should an accuser also go to law enforcement; police have openly called for using these tribunals as a way to circumvent the 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination.
This has led to FIRE protesting recent pushes in the fight against sexual assault on college campuses. They have argued that the push to lower the burden of proof to just "preponderance of the evidence" results in grave consequences to students who are convicted under lower standards. Colleges have surely done a bad job dealing with claims of rape historically, but FIRE argues that lowering the burden of proof and increasing the risk of punishing innocent individuals is not the answer, even if it leads to some rapists going free. In one particularly extreme case, when North Dakota State University expelled a student over an allegation which the police determined was false and made with malicious intent, the school refused to rescind its expulsion even after police put out an arrest warrant for the accuser for filing a false police report; it was not until FIRE threatened to sue that the school reopened its investigation, and found him not responsible.
Claims of conservative bias
FIRE has been accused of having a conservative bias. While they do defend many conservative causes, it is difficult to determine whether this is because conservatives are more likely to actually have their individual rights violated at schools, or because FIRE is more likely to defend an individual that is conservative. Since professors tend to be liberal, it doesn't take too much to imagine that these professors would be less likely to attempt to censor views they personally agree with. The argument for FIRE being conservative, or at least conservative-leaning, is bolstered by the number of conservative and/or Koch-funded organizations that fund FIRE such as the Bradley Foundation, the Sarah Scaife Foundation and the Castle Rock Foundation. However, it could be that conservative groups, afraid of a liberal boogeyman, happen to want to dump more money on a group that appears more conservative. Whether or not they are more likely to protect conservative speech, the cases they take do generally involve protecting the constitutional rights of individuals threatened by government entities (and even the ACLU protected the speech rights of Nazis).
FIRE’s leadership is made up of some seriously connected conservatives, most notably Kenneth Cribb, a former Reagan official who now also leads the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, an organization with the goal of building young right-wing leaders and creating a right-wing movement on college campuses nationwide. Greg Lukianoff, the President of FIRE, has previously argued in front of an audience that liberals are stifling intellectual diversity on campuses in America. (His side won the debate.) Although Lukianoff is a liberal, atheist, and a registered Democrat, FIRE’s board is populated by an assortment of libertarian intellectuals and Republican business people. Even his publisher, Encounter Books, specializes in conservative authors such as William Kristol, Thomas Sowell and Roger Kimball.
It is a contention that when academic freedom comes under fire by conservatives, FIRE is often found MIA, and in other cases they even contribute with their own repression:
But the most glaring omission in the book is that Lukianoff avoids any discussion of the threat to free speech and academic freedom posed by the so-called “Academic Bill of Rights,” model legislation drafted by rightwing activist David Horowitz in 2004 to promote “intellectual diversity” in the higher education and to protect students from the alleged liberal bias of the professoriate. As written, the ABOR would have mandated hiring quotas for conservative faculty and political monitoring of course reading lists in the humanities and social sciences at public universities, severely curtailing academic freedom in the process. Versions of the ABOR were introduced into more than two dozen state legislatures and came perilously close to becoming law in Georgia and Pennsylvania. Yet FIRE never once spoke out publically against the legislation. Indeed, Lukianoff’s immediate predecessor as FIRE President, David French, during the debate over the ABOR, repeatedly made public comments about the “ideological monoculture” supposedly prevailing inside the ivory tower that echoed the spurious claims being made by Horowitz and his supporters. French also testified before and served as legal advisor to the Pennsylvania state legislature’s McCarthyite investigation of academic freedom in that state, an investigation directly inspired by Horowitz and the ABOR movement. One FIRE Advisory Board member, Candace de Russy, used her position on the State University of New York Board of Trustees to push energetically for the adoption of Horowitz’s proposal as official policy throughout the SUNY system.
Even if it is true that FIRE has a bias towards supporting conservative causes, they appear to be able to avoid ridiculous cases that could easily discredit them. Lukianoff called out Ben Stein for Expelled, saying it wasn't clear Ben really cared about academic freedom; Lukianoff, in the thousands of cases he has seen, says he couldn't recall a single student being expelled for supporting ID. Not exactly astounding evidence for FIRE merely being shills. Lukianoff appears to have taken a great deal of care to not fall for conservative memes about universities being liberal indoctrination centers, as Michael Shermer was arguing for, and instead saying that it isn't generally the professors who are doing the worst (with some exceptions), but the college administrators.
FIRE has drawn criticism for its position on the case of political science professor John C. McAdams, recently fired from Marquette University.
On November 9, 2014, political science professor John McAdams, who has published his personal Marquette Warrior blog since 2002, wrote an entry criticizing the graduate student instructor of a philosophy course. As documented in a recording made by a student in the course, that instructor had stated that it was inappropriate to express opposition to same-sex marriage in class because it might offend others. On December 16, after McAdams’s entry received widespread media exposure, Marquette suspended McAdams, prohibited him from entering campus, and cancelled his spring semester classes. Marquette publicly claimed that McAdams was suspended from campus to protect student safety, and blamed McAdams directly for threatening and harassing comments the graduate instructor received from other unknown individuals. FIRE called for McAdams’s reinstatement and criticized Marquette’s violations of McAdams’s rights to free speech, due process, and academic freedom. Despite FIRE’s criticisms, Marquette informed McAdams on January 30, 2015, that it intended to revoke his tenure and permanently remove him from the faculty on the basis of the blog entry and its ensuing controversy.
Critics of FIRE's position contend that McAdams publicized personal information for the target of his criticism on his blog, and that FIRE ignored it.
FIRE reports that the Marquette University administration exceeded the recommendations for disciplinary action tendered in a 123 page faculty hearing committee report, thus acting arbitrarily and in violation of due process.
Examples of things FIRE has defended
- Professor who posted "God is dead" on his office door
- Professor placed on leave for showing a documentary about porn
- Professor terminated for advocating marijuana PTSD research
- Students trying to form a chapter of the NAACP
- Students trying to start a gay and lesbian group on campus
- Professor fired for defending BLM on Fox News after they excluded non-black people from an event
- A student joking about hunting Antifa and ISIS members
- A student distributing "Shut Down Capitalism" flyers
- A charity's name is not enough for you to decide whether to make a donation Anthony Giorgianni December 14, 2016
- Charity Navigator - Rating for Foundation for Individual Rights in Education
- FOUNDATION FOR INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS IN EDUCATION INC - GuideStar Profile
- Previously, the Blue rating was phrased as "Exempt": FIRE’s Speech Code Ratings, 2014 archived copy
- Using the Database FIRE.
- Not at Liberty to Discuss, Greg Lukianoff, September 14, 2012: "As an atheist, I would not attend Liberty University. And as an advocate of freedom of speech, I would not attend a college that does not uphold, in word and in deed, the protections of the First Amendment. But as someone who loves the diversity of our country, I fully believe in and support the right of such colleges to exist."
- FIRE: Spotlight Database > Search Results > Warning
- User’s Guide to FIRE’s Disinvitation Database, FIRE, June 9, 2016
- Disinvitation Attempts database
- You Won't Believe How Much Some Commencement Speakers Get Paid, Brad Tuttle, Jun 17, 2015
- Hawkins, Dana. Is there any justice in campus courts?.
- Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. USLegal.
- Police officer brags about circumventing due process in sexual assault cases
- The Politics of Campus Sexual Assault FIRE. 6 Nov. 2011.
- FIRE Case: University of North Dakota: Accuser Is Criminally Charged with Lying to Police, But School Refuses to Reopen Misconduct Case
- Sweet Jesus, FIRE is conservative!. SAFER. 13 Dec. 2005.
- Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. SourceWatch.
- Intelligence Squared Debate: Liberals are Stifling Intellectual Diversity on Campus
- Liberals Are Stifling Intellectual Diversity, Campus Audience Decides After Hearing Both Sides of the Argument, Napp Nazworth, Christian Post. 26 Feb. 2015.
- Review of Greg Lukianoff's Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate, Steve Macek, Speech Communication, North Central College
- Lukianoff, Greg. Teach the controversy? LA Times. 16 Apr. 2008.
- Shermer, Michael, & Lukianoff, Greg. Marxist professors or sensitive students? LA Times. 14 Apr. 2008.
- FIRE Case: Marquette University: Faculty Member Facing Loss of Tenure for Opinions on Blog
- Marquette Continues to Earn ‘Worst School’ for Free Speech Label With New Punishments for McAdams, Nico Perrino, March 25, 2016