Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression

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Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression
Founded1999; 23 years ago (1999)
FounderAlan Charles Kors
Harvey Silverglate
Headquarters510 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Coordinates39°56′53″N 75°09′05″W / 39.9481°N 75.1513°W / 39.9481; -75.1513Coordinates: 39°56′53″N 75°09′05″W / 39.9481°N 75.1513°W / 39.9481; -75.1513
Greg Lukianoff
Executive Director
Robert Shibley

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), formerly known as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, is a non-profit civil liberties group founded in 1999 with the aim of protecting free speech rights on college campuses in the United States.[1][2][3] FIRE was renamed in June 2022, with its focus broadened to free speech rights across American society in general.[4]


The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education was co-founded by Alan Charles Kors and Harvey Silverglate in 1999, who were FIRE's co-directors until 2004.[1] Kors and Silverglate had co-authored a 1998 book opposing censorship at colleges.[2][5] Silverglate had served on the board of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Massachusetts.[1] Kors served as FIRE's first president and chairperson. Its first executive director and, later, CEO, was Thor Halvorssen.[6] It was founded to be non-ideological and nonpartisan.[1]

FIRE aims to defend First Amendment rights on college campuses, and free speech rights in academia.[7] The group files lawsuits against colleges and universities that it perceives as curtailing rights of students and professors.[2] FIRE's "Litigation Project" challenges speech codes it deems unconstitutional.[8][9] According to The New York Times journalist Cecilia Capuzzi Simon, "There are other groups that fight for First Amendment rights on campus, but none as vocal—or pushy—as FIRE."[2] The Times also referred to FIRE as a "familiar irritant to college administrators."[2] Cathy Young, a Cato Institute fellow and columnist for The Bulwark, wrote that "FIRE has handled many cases involving speech suppression in the name of progressive values," while also saying "it is that rare group which actually means it when it claims to be nonpartisan."[10] FIRE has been described as a competitor of the larger ACLU.[10][1][4]

In June 2022, FIRE announced it was broadening its efforts and advocating for free speech across American society in general, rather than limiting its efforts to college campuses. The announcement came with a renaming of the organization to the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (keeping the acronym FIRE), and a $75 million expansion plan over three years. FIRE said that the expansion would focus on "litigation, public education, and research," with $10 million for a nationwide advertising campaign to "promote a culture of free expression." Josh Gerstein wrote in Politico that "part of the push may challenge the American Civil Liberties Union's primacy as a defender of free speech." Politico also wrote that FIRE would spend $10 million on "planned national cable and billboard advertising featuring activists on both ends of the political spectrum extolling the virtues of free speech."[4][11][12]


FIRE is headquartered in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with another office in Washington, D.C.[13][14] It has received funding from the Bradley Foundation, Sarah Scaife Foundation, and the Charles Koch Institute, organizations which primarily support libertarian and conservative causes.[2][12][15]

FIRE is composed of professors, policy experts, and public intellectuals who span the political spectrum.[16] Its board of directors includes conservatives, liberals, and libertarians.[16] Greg Lukianoff serves as president and CEO of FIRE, while Robert Shibley serves as executive director.[17][18] Nico Perrino is FIRE's vice president of communications.[19] Lukianoff co-wrote The New York Times bestselling book The Coddling of the American Mind with New York University Professor Jonathan Haidt, arguing that tribalism on college campuses is a "very serious problem for any democracy."[20][21] Ira Glasser, former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), serves on FIRE's Advisory Council.[22] Former ACLU President Nadine Strossen is also an advisory board member.[23]

Policy positions[edit]

Campus speech[edit]

FIRE has opposed campus speech codes.[24] 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.[25]

FIRE has challenged "free speech zones" on college campuses, claiming they are unconstitutional restrictions on First Amendment rights.[26] The organization has provided legal support to students contesting free speech zones, while also supporting legislation to eliminate such zones.[27] In his book Speech Out of Doors: Preserving First Amendment Liberties in Public Places (Cambridge University Press, 2008), law professor Timothy Zick wrote "in large part due to [FIRE's] litigation and other advocacy efforts, campus expressive zoning policies have been highlighted, altered, and in a number of cases repealed."[28]

Challenges to college residence life programs[edit]

In 2007, the organization said that a mandatory program for students living in dormitories at the University of Delaware resembled "thought reform". The school suspended it.[29]

Student press[edit]

At the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, FIRE opposed university practices that required student journalists to submit their questions ahead of time or seek permission from the school before interviewing university employees. After FIRE intervened, the university revised its practices to no longer require prior approval before interviews.[30]

Campus security fees[edit]

FIRE has opposed security fees some campuses charge to groups which host controversial speakers.[31][32] These fees are charged to pay for extra security, which colleges say is necessary due to the likelihood of demonstrations and disruption of events.[33]

In 2014, FIRE assisted the Kalamazoo Peace Center in its lawsuit against Western Michigan University, after the university said the peace center could only invite rapper Boots Riley to speak on campus if it paid a security fee.[34] The school settled the lawsuit and agreed to revise its policies.[35]

Due process[edit]

FIRE also targets situations where students and faculty are adjudicated outside the bounds of due process afforded to them by Constitutional law or stated university policy.[36][37][better source needed]

FIRE has argued for more rights for students facing sexual assault allegations.[38] In 2011, FIRE opposed the Education Department's "Dear Colleague" letter that urged universities to use a "preponderance of the evidence" standard instead of the criminal justice system's "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard in sexual assault cases.[39][38][40] In 2020, FIRE supported new rules made by the Department of Education during the Trump administration about sexual assault and harassment cases that required colleges to allow the cross-examination of accusers.[41]

Public and private universities[edit]

FIRE has argued that public schools are required to uphold First Amendment protections for their students and faculty members because they are government entities.[42] Although private schools are not bound by the First Amendment, FIRE has said contractual promises related to free speech or academic freedom should be upheld.[43][44]

In 2021, in response to the board of trustees at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill declining to give Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure, FIRE released a statement saying "if it is accurate that this refusal was the result of viewpoint discrimination against Hannah-Jones, particularly based on political opposition to her appointment, this decision has disturbing implications for academic freedom."[45]

Public education[edit]

In 2020, FIRE partnered with College Pulse and RealClearEducation to release the College Free Speech Rankings, a comparison of student free-speech environments at America's top college campuses.[46][47] Since 2011, the group has also published a list of the “worst colleges for free speech.”[48]

In February 2022, FIRE produced an advertisement featuring National Basketball Association (NBA) player Enes Kanter Freedom for the 2022 Winter Olympics in China, supporting freedom of speech.[49] Freedom also shared his personal story about censorship in his home country of Turkey.[50]

FIRE partnered with Korchula Productions and the DKT Liberty Project to produce the 2015 documentary "Can We Take a Joke?".[51][52] Focusing on comedy and outrage culture, the film features Adam Carolla, Gilbert Gottfried, and other comedians.[53] In 2020, FIRE released “Mighty Ira,” a documentary about Glasser.[54][55]


Public universities[edit]

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,[56] 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.[57]

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.[58]

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.[59]

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.[60]

In October 2011, Catawba Valley Community College suspended a student (Marc Bechtol) for complaining on Facebook about a 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.[61] Charges were dropped in December 2011.[62]

In 2012, FIRE filed a lawsuit against Iowa State University (ISU) after ISU prevented the university's chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws from designing T-shirts featuring the school's mascot.[63][64] The lawsuit eventually ended with nearly $1 million in damages and fees awarded.[65]

In 2014, FIRE sued Chicago State University (CSU) for trying to shut down a faculty blog critical of CSU's former administration.[66][67] The school eventually agreed to rewrite its speech policies, paying $650,000 to settle the lawsuit.[68]

Private universities[edit]

FIRE has criticized Columbia University's sexual misconduct policy;[69] according to FIRE, the policy "lack[ed] even the most minimal safeguards and fundamental principles of fairness".[70] The criticism 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.[71]

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.[72] FIRE, along with Brandeis' own Committee on Faculty Rights and Responsibilities, 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's student press, Hindley was rumored to have used the epithet "wetback." An anonymous student-witness, quoted in the Brandeis Hoot,[73] 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."[74]

In 2015, FIRE defended Erika Christakis, associate master of Yale University's Silliman College, after she questioned the school's Intercultural Affairs Council for highlighting the cultural implications of Halloween costumes.[75][76][77] Lukianoff recorded a video of students confronting Christakis's husband, who served as master of Silliman College, on the Yale campus.[78]

In 2021, FIRE advocated on behalf of Stanford University student Nicholas Wallace, who satirized the Federalist Society and Republican political figures in an email to his peers.[79] Wallace's diploma was initially put on hold for the email, prompting FIRE to contact Stanford in his defense.[80] The school's investigation was ultimately dropped and Wallace was allowed to graduate.[81]

In 2022, FIRE released a series of advertisements in Boston, Massachusetts, accusing Emerson College of censoring free speech on campus.[82] The ad campaign came in response to Emerson investigating and suspending the campus chapter of Turning Point USA, which distributed stickers featuring a hammer and sickle with the caption "China Kinda Sus" (slang for "suspicious").[83][84] Emerson claimed the stickers represented "anti-China hate", while FIRE blamed the school for violating "freedom of expression."[85] FIRE also launched the website "Emerson Kinda Sus" in response.[86]

See also[edit]


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External links[edit]