The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education — an advocacy organization that has long intervened on behalf of students and professors across the political spectrum whose free-speech rights were violated or under threat — is expanding beyond college campuses.
The organization announced Monday it is rebranding as the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression as part of a $75-million campaign that it says will focus on defending free speech through litigation and in the court of public opinion. “It’s important that people believe there’s somebody out there who’s watching the store on this, and we want that to be FIRE,” said Robert Shibley, the organization’s executive director.
The initiative is intended to launch FIRE into the national consciousness as “a well-known protector of free speech,” Shibley said. The move comes at a time when free speech is top of mind nationwide. Legislatures in many states have introduced or passed laws that restrict what K-12 teachers, and sometimes college instructors, can address in the classroom. In March, The New York Times’s editorial board proclaimed: “America Has a Free Speech Problem.” Citing polls and interviews, the board asserted that “the old lesson of ‘think before you speak’ has given way to the new lesson of ‘speak at your peril.’”
Over time, FIRE has been “inundated with lots of queries about broader free-speech issues,” said Keith E. Whittington, a professor of politics at Princeton University who wrote Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech and serves on FIRE’s board of directors. So “it’s a very natural extension in lots of ways,” he said. By being viewpoint neutral in who they defend, they’ve built credibility on the left and the right, Whittington said. “I think they’re going to try to bring that same sensibility to the larger world.”
FIRE is already a well-known actor on the smaller stage of academic-speech issues. It sometimes represents — or finds representation for — faculty members in legal disputes against their institutions, such as a former history professor at Collin College who alleged that her contract wasn’t renewed because of tweets that were critical of Mike Pence and her college’s president. It intercedes on behalf of students who are punished for their speech, tracks restrictive rules for expression, and conducts a broad student survey of colleges’ overall speech climate, issuing scores.
The group wasn’t always so active. When Shibley started at the organization in 2003, FIRE had only seven employees, he recalled. Founded just four years earlier in 1999, the group was a relative unknown. Now the group has 84 full-time employees and commands the attention of people throughout higher ed — general counsels’ offices, administrators, and faculty members, Shibley says.
FIRE has longstanding critics. Some argue the organization is a Trojan horse for the conservative movement and values, said Jeffrey A. Sachs, an instructor in the department of politics at Acadia University who writes about campus expression. FIRE has received funding since its founding from “a variety of conservative foundations, including millions from some linked to billionaire Charles Koch,” noted Politico in its story about the expansion.
Though Sachs has his own qualms with the organization, he disagrees. “I think FIRE has proven itself again and again willing to defend liberals … with equal speed as it has demonstrated when the target is a conservative.”
Other academics have pointed out what they see as shortcomings in FIRE’s data collection and analysis. For example, in 2021, FIRE proclaimed in a report that “three in four campaigns targeting faculty expression result in punishment.” Yet that figure included cases in which a scholar was merely investigated, John K. Wilson, a former fellow at the University of California National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement, wrote on Academe Blog, which is published by the American Association of University Professors. Though disciplinary investigations “can have a chilling effect,” Wilson acknowledged, most people “would never imagine that an investigation resulting in no punishment could be described as ‘result in punishment.’”
FIRE has also been criticized for making mountains of molehills. Critics on the left, especially, have knocked the organization for perpetuating what they see as a trumped-up claim of a pervasive free-speech crisis on college campuses.
That FIRE is hyperbolic is an argument that’s “harder and harder” to make these days, Shibley said. “People do feel like something has gone wrong with the culture. They do feel uncomfortable expressing their opinions. Whether or not they’re actually safe to do so, or something will happen to them, is a slightly different question,” he said. But “if people believe it’s not safe to speak out, they won’t speak out.”
‘Benefits’ of Discomfort
FIRE has raised around $28.5 million toward its $75-million goal, largely from individual contributions, said Shibley. FIRE spoke privately with some longtime supporters and “made a good case for what we want to do here,” he said. Ten-million dollars will be used as part of a nationwide advertising campaign, called Faces of Free Speech, on cable television, online, and on billboards, according to the press release. FIRE is now seeking case submissions from Americans who think their free-speech rights have been violated, who aren’t on college campuses, it says.
The organization will begin to research “the different ways that free speech helps different groups, and different individuals,” Shibley said. FIRE also wants to “reach people where they are and try to communicate to them why free speech matters to them individually, and to people like them.”
Ultimately, FIRE wants to “build — or arguably rebuild — the culture” where people accept that sometimes others “will say something that upsets you or offends you, and that’s OK … That’s something that we need to learn to live with and accept and realize the benefits of rather than simply lament the discomfort that also comes with it,” Shibley said.
It’s a tall order. Sachs said where FIRE “really can shine,” and where he hopes it’ll commit its resources, is in public-interest litigation. He noted that there’s no shortage of academics and organizations that study free-speech issues, and he’s not optimistic that educational interventions make much of a difference.
Elizabeth Niehaus, an associate professor of educational administration at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln who has researched student-speech issues, said she thinks that a lot of why people on the left have become more critical of the value of free speech because it’s been adopted by the right as an excuse to say offensive things. “The sort of cultural image of free speech is Charlottesville,” said Niehaus, referencing the 2017 white-supremacist rally. There have been similar high-profile incidents “that have given free speech a bad name,” Niehaus said, “and that’s tough to get out of.”
When Niehaus talks to students, she said they express doubt about whether it’s worthwhile to engage in conversations with people who have very different points of view. Robust, productive engagement of different ideas isn’t something that’s modeled often in politics or in the media, Niehaus said. “If FIRE can do something to create more productive dialogue off campus in ways that is then modeled to students, I think that would be awesome.”
Much remains to be seen. Over the past two decades, as FIRE grew, donations boomed. In the calendar year of 2001, FIRE brought in $827,467, adjusted for inflation to April-2022 dollars. In the fiscal year of 2020, it took in more than 18 times that amount in contributions — around $15.13 million in inflation-adjusted dollars, according to tax documents. Still, raising $75 million is a jump.
“We are counting on there being popular support for what we do. We obviously can’t grow to the extent that we want to unless there is this groundswell of support for an organization like ours. So we will soon find out whether or not our estimation of that was correct,” Shibley said, adding, “I’m confident that we were.”