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 about 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.”