The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) was founded in 1999, with its founders expecting that it would last only ten years. But you probably know that the organization is still going strong. In fact, it’s going stronger than ever due to the rise of the Authoritarian Left and student Offense Culture, as well as Obama’s “urging” campuses to expand how Title IX, the sexual harassment regulation, is construed—an expansion that has come into conflict with First Amendment rights and thrown many campuses into a turmoil (see an example here).
In fact, only a few years ago I remember FIRE being widely regarded as a right-wing fringe organization, largely because it took on the thankless task of defending free speech and expression on campuses—something that often required them to counter liberal attempts to censor “hate speech.” And FIRE is still supported generously by right-wing groups like the Koch Foundation. That’s exactly why progressives like us should fund them, for a liberal philosophy is the traditional repository of individual rights, including the right to criticize religion! Most progressive causes in the U.S., like the civil rights and gay-liberation movements, have succeeded precisely because they were able to speak freely in ways others found offensive. A gay liberation movement would not succeed in Saudi Arabia, for its proponents would not only be censored, but killed.
It’s an indication of the Zeitgeist, then, that FIRE is now so busy that it’s the subject of a new New York Times profile, “Fighting for free speech on America’s campuses.” Greg Lukianoff, the president and chief executive of FIRE, dates the beginning of the big rise in censorship on American campuses:
“Something changed,” Mr. Lukianoff said. “I don’t entirely know why.” But he can date the shift: October 2013, at Brown University, when the New York City police commissioner, Raymond Kelly, was invited to speak but was shouted down by students over his support of stop-and-frisk practices.
“I count that as the symbolic beginning because that’s when we noticed an uptick in student press for disinvitations, trigger warnings and microaggression policing,” he said. “That doesn’t mean administrators have stopped doing goofy things, but now they can say, at least more convincingly, that they are being told by students that they need to do those things.”
I was unaware of the 2016 Gallup survey quoted in the article (Free Expression on Campus: A Survey of U.S. College Students and U.S. Adults; free pdf), but, as reported by the Times, its findings are disturbing:
- Asked if colleges should have policies against slurs and other intentionally offensive language, 69 percent of students said yes, while 27 percent believed they should be able to restrict expression of potentially offensive political views. And 63 percent wanted schools to restrict costumes that stereotype racial or ethnic groups.
In other words, roughly 2/3 of students think their schools should restrict First Amendment rights they enjoy in society as a whole.
• While 76 percent agreed that students should not be able to prevent the news media from covering campus protests, nearly half supported reasons for curtailing that coverage: biased reporting (49 percent), the right to be left alone when protesting (48 percent) and the right to tell their own story on the internet and social media (44 percent). For black students, percentages are higher (66 percent, 61 percent and 54 percent).
• Black students were least sanguine about the right to peaceable assembly: 60 percent saw it as a threat, compared with 29 percent of white students.
And yet, despite the 2/3 mandate for speech and dress censorship, over half recognize that their own campuses have a climate that suppresses free speech:
• Over all, 54 percent polled said the climate on their campus “prevents some people from saying things they believe because others might find them offensive.”
Finally, if you go to the report, you’ll find another result:
- U.S. college students are highly confident about the security of each of the five First Amendment rights, particularly freedom of the press (81%), freedom to petition the government (76%) and freedom of speech (73%).
Yet these are the very rights they want to remove or restrict on their own campuses! I’m not sure what’s going on here, unless students simply don’t understand the First Amendment and its historical interpretation by courts, which includes allowing speech now largely seen as “hate speech.” We’ll get to this ignorance in a minute.
In the meantime, FIRE has been extraordinarily successful in investigating and rectifying violations of First Amendment rights on campus (my emphasis below):
A lawsuit is FIRE’s tactic of last resort, especially when it comes to speech codes. In about 90 percent of cases, it uses “persuasion,” as staff members call it, to get administrators to revise or revoke questionable parts of a code. Depending on the level of “obstinacy,” Mr. Bonilla said, “the levers of publicity” — news releases, op-eds, media appearances — kick in. Most administrators, wary of bad press or an expensive suit, eliminate the speech codes.
As Mr. Lukianoff likes to note, FIRE has not lost a speech-code legal challenge yet. (He recounts many of them in his 2014 book, “Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate.”)
I’ve read that book, and it’s very good as well as eye-opening. I’ll soon offer a free copy as the prize in an as-yet-undetermined contest.
The Times piece does show some criticism of FIRE by universities, but I don’t find it compelling. And the article offers up one more bit of information relevant to the Christakises Halloween Dustup at Yale University:
Katie McCleary, a Little Shell Chippewa student raised on the Crow Reservation in Montana, is a Yale junior who was active in the protests. “I would not seek out FIRE even though they say they are founded for reasons of defending students who feel their voice is lost,” she said. “It seems like a specific kind of lost voice that they are interested in. It’s usually a voice that’s racist and says things that are immoral. I’d rather speak for myself.”
This shows a profound misunderstanding of the First Amendment. The court cases and complaints do indeed often involve protecting “offensive” speech (here characterized as “immoral” or “racist”). If someone didn’t find the speech offensive, there wouldn’t be any complaints requiring interventions by FIRE. But make no mistake about it—if McCleary’s right to speak her mind was violated on campus, FIRE would be there for her. Her criticisms make no more sense than saying that because accused criminals are usually guilty, yet are entitled to a defense (one that’s free if you’re indigent), then the whole judicial system is worthless.
The ignorance of students about the Constitution is amply displayed in another article in yesterday’s Times: “Want a copy of the Constitution? Now, that’s controversial!” Apparently, students passing out the Constitution on campus is considered a subversive activity
Passing out the Constitution on campus isn’t the benign activity one might expect, especially when egged on by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. The group provides a pocket-size “Student Activist Edition” of the Constitution, which includes directions on how to hand it out and what to do if you get stopped: “Refer administrators to the First Amendment (p. 43)”; “Consider taking a video of the conversation”; “Contact FIRE for further assistance.”
On Constitution Day — the day delegates signed the document, Sept. 17, 1787 — a student Army veteran at Modesto Junior College in Fresno, Calif., was prevented from distributing copies and told to make an appointment to use the “free-speech zone,” a small, remote area available only certain hours of the day (three states now prohibit public colleges from designating only certain areas as free-speech zones). Likewise, at the University of Hawaii, Hilo, student members of Young Americans for Liberty, a national libertarian group, were ordered back to their table after handing out copies.
It’s hard to imagine that such activity could rise to the level of infraction, but both are cases FIRE filed suit over, and settled for a combined $100,000.
When I put up the following video, made by a provocateur, showing students at Yale (a hive of The Perpetually Offended) signing a petition to ban the First Amendment, some commenters here chimed in saying that the video was fake, or edited to make people look bad. I’m not so sure about that! People simply don’t know what the founding document of America law really says—or means.
When the Constitution of the U.S. is regarded as subversive and worthy of banning, then we’re really in trouble.
h/t: Greg Mayer