Foundation for Individual Rights in Education
|Founder||Alan Charles Kors,|
Harvey A. Silverglate
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a non-profit group founded in 1999 that focuses on civil liberties in academia in the United States. Its goal is "to defend and sustain individual rights at America's colleges and universities," including the rights to "freedom of speech, legal equality, due process, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience".
One of FIRE's main activities has been criticism of university administrators whose activities have, in FIRE's view, violated the free speech or due process rights of college and university students and professors under the First Amendment and/or Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. FIRE lists over 487 such instances on its website.
FIRE was founded by Alan Charles Kors, a libertarian professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and Harvey A. Silverglate, a civil-liberties lawyer in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Silverglate remains on FIRE's board, while Kors is Chairman Emeritus. Since March 23, 2006, FIRE's President has been Greg Lukianoff, who previously served as interim president.
One of FIRE's primary focuses is opposition to campus "speech codes." FIRE identifies as speech codes those college and university policies prohibiting expressions that the institutions consider to be sexually, racially, religiously or otherwise offensive in content if such policies prohibit speech that would be protected by the First Amendment in the off-campus society. FIRE has taken stances on campus sexual misconduct policies; for example, it denounced the American Association of University Women's report on sexual harassment as "fatally flawed" and sided with the defendants in joining an amicus brief in Lyle v. Warner Brothers Television Productions et al.
Another issue is opposition to campus "security fees" that some campuses impose on organizations hosting controversial or unpopular speakers on the theory that they should pay for extra security the colleges deem necessary due to the likelihood of demonstrations and disruption of the events. FIRE bases its opposition to such fees on the Supreme Court ruling in Forsyth County, Georgia v. The Nationalist Movement; the Supreme Court stated that "speech cannot be financially burdened, any more than it can be punished or banned, simply because it might offend a hostile mob."
FIRE has also voiced support for freedom of association by defending student organizations, including campus religious organizations that may discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or religious belief in membership (for example at Tufts University and at the Milwaukee School of Engineering) and fraternities that may engage in "off-color" or "misogynistic" speech.
FIRE's latest report of University Ratings is Spotlight on Speech Codes 2016: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses. The foundation gathers together each university's various harassment and hate speech policies, as well as any "Advertised Commitments to Freedom of Speech". On the basis of these and media reports, FIRE then assigns each institution a color code: green ("no serious threats to free speech"), yellow ("some policies that could ban or excessively regulate protected speech") or red ("at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech").
As of 2016 the percentage of universities that FIRE deemed to "seriously infringe upon students' rights to free speech" dipped to just below 50 percent. That makes 2016 the fourth consecutive year that the percentage has dropped, according to FIRE.
In April 2007, Jon B. Gould, an author and George Mason University faculty member, criticized FIRE's rating methods, claiming that FIRE had grossly exaggerated the prevalence of unconstitutional speech codes.
As of January 2016, FIRE rated most of the eight universities in the Ivy League, "red"; one was rated "green" (University of Pennsylvania), five were rated "red" (Brown, Cornell, Harvard, Columbia and Princeton) and the final two (Dartmouth, and Yale) were rated "yellow".
FIRE is composed of professors, policy experts, and public intellectuals who span the political spectrum.
FIRE was co-founded by Alan Kors and Harvey A. Silverglate, who were FIRE's co-directors until 2004. Kors served as FIRE's first president and chairperson. Its first executive director and, later, CEO, was Thor Halvorssen. As of 2008, Silverglate was still active with the organization as chairman and served on the Board of Directors, while Kors was no longer listed as an active board member. Also included among FIRE's directors were molecular biologist Richard Losick, feminist scholar Daphne Patai, and proprietarian author Virginia Postrel.
As of 2008, FIRE's Board of Advisors included the following notable people:
- Karith Foster, comedian and author.
- Kmele Foster, telecommunications entrepreneur and political commentator.
- Ira Glasser, former executive director of the ACLU.
- Wendy Kaminer, lawyer, feminist, and social critic.
- Peter Malkin, real estate investor and Chairman Emeritus of Empire State Realty Trust.
- Jacob Mchangama, Danish lawyer and think tank director.
- John McWhorter, professor and columnist.
- Muriel Morisey, professor and former trustee.
- Mike Peters, political and comic strip cartoonist.
- Steven Pinker, cognitive psychologist, linguist, and popular science author.
- Nadine Strossen, professor and former ACLU president.
- Lawrence Summers, professor and former Harvard University president.
In 2003 and 2004, FIRE acted on behalf of Cal Poly student Steve Hinkle, who was punished for posting a flier on a public bulletin board announcing a College Republicans-sponsored speech by Mason Weaver, a black social critic, and author of the book It's OK to Leave the Plantation, which argued against dependence on government. Some students at the campus Multicultural Center found the flier offensive. Hinkle politely offered to discuss the flier, but to no avail. After he left, a student called the university police, whose official report stated that officers had responded to complaints about "a suspicious white male passing out literature of an offensive racial nature." The Cal Poly Judicial Affairs Office, after a seven-hour hearing in February 2003, found Hinkle guilty of "disruption of a campus event," as several students in the Multicultural Center public area claimed that they were having a meeting at the time, although no sign, announcement, or record of that event existed. Despite repeated attempts by FIRE to get Cal Poly's admin to correct the problem, FIRE brought suit in Hinkle's name. Eventually, Cal Poly settled out of court. The sequence of events is fully detailed in a FIRE press release, issued May 6, 2004.
FIRE supported Linda McCarriston, a poet, professor and self-described socialist at the University of Alaska Anchorage, in a case in which the University was investigating her for a poem she had published on sexual abuse involving Native Alaskans. In explicit response to FIRE's intervention, University of Alaska President Mark Hamilton ordered that the investigation cease on constitutional grounds, stating that "there was nothing to investigate"; he was formally commended for defending academic freedom by Democratic governor Tony Knowles and by unanimous vote of both houses of the Alaska legislature.
FIRE joined with a number of other civil liberties groups in the case of Hosty v. Carter, involving suppression of a student newspaper at Governors State University in Illinois, and has been involved in a case at Arizona State University where it condemned the listing of a class as open only to Native American students.
FIRE sparred with the University of New Hampshire in 2004 over its treatment of student Timothy Garneau, who was expelled from student housing after he wrote and distributed a flier joking that female classmates could lose the "Freshman fifteen" by taking the stairs instead of the elevator. After FIRE publicly criticized the decision, Garneau was reinstated. He had been living in his car for three weeks.
In 2007, FIRE took issue with a document from a Resident Assistant training session at the University of Delaware's Office of Residence Life Diversity Facilitation Training. The brief handout, compiled and presented by Dr. Shakti Butler, included a controversial definition of the word "racist". The author noted that it "applies to all white people (i.e., people of European descent) living in the United States, regardless of class, gender, religion, culture or sexuality". About this event, Walter E. Williams wrote, "This gem of wisdom suggests that by virtue of birth alone, not conduct, if you're white, you're a racist."
FIRE sent a letter to the President of University of Florida on November 29, 2007, expressing outrage that the Vice-Chancellor had sent a mass email which condemned a showing of the movie Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West and called for an apology from those responsible. The state Attorney General had threatened legal action due to possible freedom of speech violations. Two weeks later, the Vice-Chancellor and President signed a follow-up statement retracting the call for apology.
In 2007, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) disciplined a university employee, who also was a student, for reading "Notre Dame vs. the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan". This book was available in the university library. FIRE took its criticism of IUPUI public. The chancellor finally apologized to the employee-student after mounting criticism from FIRE, the ACLU, and other free speech groups.
In May 2007 Valdosta State University expelled T. Hayden Barnes, who had protested against the construction of two new parking garages on the campus which he saw as encouraging the use of private transportation. University President Ronald Zaccari misconstrued a caption of the proposed garages as the "Ronald Zaccari Memorial Parking Garage" as a threat to himself. With FIRE support, the expulsion was overturned and a court found VSU to have violated Barnes's due process rights.
In 2008, college professor Kerry Laird was ordered by Temple College to remove the quote, "Gott ist tot" (God is Dead), a famous quote from Nietzsche, from his office door. FIRE wrote a letter to the Temple administration hinting at the possibility of legal action and stated, "Please spare Temple College the embarrassment of fighting against the Bill of Rights, by which it is legally and morally bound." Temple has since lifted the ban.
In October 2011, Catawba Valley Community College suspended a student (Marc Bechtol) for complaining on his Facebook about the new policy that required students to sign up for a debit card to get their student ID and grant money. CVCC decided that the comments were 'disturbing' and a 'threat', and used that reasoning to suspend the student. FIRE took the side of the student and, pending a final outcome, he has been allowed back in class. Charges were dropped in December 2011.
FIRE represented a student group for National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws at Iowa State University who were prohibited from using the university's logo on T-shirts advocating marijuana legalization. On February 2017 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit unanimously upheld a federal district court's decision to bar Iowa State from using its trademark policy to prevent the group from printing their shirts, a win the group called its "biggest victory to date."
At Tufts University in 2000, FIRE defended a Christian group that had been de-recognized by the university for refusing to allow a homosexual student to take a leadership position in the group, although the student was permitted to remain a member of the group. FIRE defended the group on religious freedom grounds, arguing that members of student groups that have an expressive purpose should be allowed to organize and operate religious groups based on that expressive purpose.
FIRE has also criticized Columbia University's sexual misconduct policy; according to FIRE, the policy "lack[ed] even the most minimal safeguards and fundamental principles of fairness".That controversy led to the resignation of Charlene Allen, Columbia's program coordinator for the Office of Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Education, whose policies were at the center of the controversy. Allen's resignation was considered in part due to FIRE's activism.
FIRE criticized Brandeis University on both free speech and due process grounds in early 2008 over its treatment of veteran politics professor Donald Hindley. Provost Marty Krauss informed Hindley in October 2007 that comments he made in his Latin American politics class violated the school's anti-harassment policy. Krauss placed a monitor in Hindley's class and ordered him to attend racial sensitivity training. FIRE, along with Brandeis' own Committee on Faculty Rights and Responsibilities, has criticized Krauss for never explicitly telling Hindley what specific in-class comments constituted harassing speech and for not granting Hindley a process by which to appeal the decision. According to Brandeis' student press, Hindley is rumored to have used the epithet "wetback." An anonymous student-witness, quoted in the Brandeis Hoot, called Hindley's remarks "inappropriate." Other students praised Hindley's pedagogical approach as encouraging "students to face racist narratives head on" and that any disagreement "is a dispute for students and faculty to solve through rational dialogue, not one for the administration to settle in secret inquisitions."
In 2010, FIRE criticized DePaul University for denying recognition to a group advocating for decriminalization of non-medical cannabis in the United States stating that student groups must "be congruent with our institutional goals regarding the health and well-being of our students." 
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