Separating Good and Silly Criticism of FIRE in the Campus Speech DebateBreaking News
tags: free speech, academic freedom
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) is blessed with terrible critics. As its public profile has risen sharply in recent years, so has the volume of criticism against it. Unfortunately, those critiques are almost uniformly bad.
With limited exceptions, critics of FIRE tend to rehearse the same tired arguments: that it receives right-wing money (so what?), often attacks the campus left (can you blame them?), and is uncharitable to college administrators (rightly so). If this was the best that FIRE’s critics could offer, the group would deserve our unqualified support.
But better criticisms do exist. Here are just a few, listed in order of least concerning to most.
A more significant critique involves FIRE’s approach toward college rankings. One of its marquee products is the Spotlight Database, which rates the speech policies at nearly 500 colleges and universities according to how well they protect student free speech. The best institutions receive a Green Light rating; the worst get a Red Light. This information is then incorporated into another widely publicized FIRE product, its annual College Free Speech Rankings.
It is all meant to sound very scientific, but what does it say about these databases and rankings that they are blind to the single most significant assault on campus free speech of the decade?
I’m referring to so-called CRT (Critical Race Theory) bans like Florida’s Stop WOKE Act, which became law in April 2022. According to FIRE’s own lawsuit against it, the law violates the constitutional rights of both faculty members and students at public Florida colleges. For faculty members, it prohibits “a sweeping amount of protected speech related to scholarship or teaching, or classroom speech over matters of public concern.” And for students, it violates their constitutional right to receive information unfettered by a “pall of orthodoxy.”
Yet incredibly, of the 12 public universities in Florida that FIRE ranks, none receives a Red Light rating for its speech policies. In fact, the University of Florida actually has a Green Light ranking, despite its adoption of internal rules to carry out the Stop WOKE Act. Florida State University also has a Green Light and is ranked over all as one of the best institutions in the country in terms of student free speech. Yet it too has established an internal policy to observe the law, as has every other public college and university in the state.
I don’t believe this circle can be squared. If FIRE meant what it said about the Stop WOKE Act in court, then no public institution of higher learning in Florida can promise free speech. Certainly, none deserves a Green Light.
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