The expansion of FIRE: Mission creep or necessity?

FIRE co-founder Harvey Silverglate (left) and former president David French (right) say there has never been a more important time for FIRE to expand its mission off-campus.

by David French and Harvey Silvergate

June 15, 2022

We come from very different political, social and religious perspectives. However, we are united in our concern over the long and continuous breakdown of the culture of our country’s higher education institutions. I (Silverglate) recognized the problem in the last years of the 20th century, when I co-wrote (in 1998) a book called “The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses”. The following year, I co-founded the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which is still dedicated to fighting for academic freedom and due process in academia. I (David French) am the first member of the FIRE legal network and the first president of FIRE.

It is remarkable that educational institutions, in theory dedicated to rational thought and academic freedom, have evolved to the point where it is dangerous for one’s career to express thought that contravenes the dominant ideology of the time. Rationality, openness and tolerance for disagreement have given way to what can only be described as a form of intellectual and political authoritarianism.

FIRE, the organization we both have an association with, started with one full-time paid employee and two part-time volunteers (its co-founders). Currently, the organization has 80 full-time employees, not including interns. Since its founding, FIRE has developed an impeccable reputation for non-partisan advocacy. He defended the rights of all students and teachers, regardless of their religion or ideology, and he achieved remarkable success, winning victory after victory before the courts and public opinion.

What is truly disturbing is how quickly intolerance of speech and ideas has spread beyond campus.

Further, reflecting the alarming spread of intolerance of diverse viewpoints beyond academia, FIRE this month announced a significant expansion of its mission and a commensurate name change. Going forward, the organization will be known as the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. This change represents a recognition that FIRE’s primary concern at the time of its inception—that students indoctrinated against freedom will take their new beliefs with them upon graduation—has become too narrow a priority.

The upcoming expansion was announced in February this year, when FIRE launched a national advertising campaign featuring professional basketball player Enes Kanter Freedom, an immigrant from Turkey who added “Freedom” to his name to reflect his thanks to his adopted country. for offering him the same freedoms granted to generations of immigrants since the arrival of the Pilgrims – freedoms not available in his native country. A similar campaign, which took place shortly after FIRE announced plans to expand, featured Nate Boyer, a US Army Green Beret who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. He publicly supported the right of NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick who “knelt” during the national anthem in 2016 to protest police brutality. After initially being offended by what he saw as Kaepernick’s lack of patriotism, Boyer eventually supported Kaepernick’s right to protest. “Free speech makes people free,” the ad concludes.

What is truly disturbing is how quickly intolerance of speech and ideas has spread beyond campus. The censors fully understand that in order to enforce their ways of censorship, they must indoctrinate the students, who will then become adults and engage in the same tactic with the young people upon graduation. The reality is that this is too narrow a goal for a civil liberties organization to deal with only academia. There is a warp, or perhaps it could be described as a continuous web.

The failure of our colleges to educate in freedom bears much of the responsibility for the growing intolerance experienced in our society.

So at a time when free speech is, indeed, increasingly under attack (in part because the nation is so polarized), and when this attack has been seen with increasing frequency not just in our schools , but in society at large, the FIRE expansion is not an example of mission creep; rather, it is an urgent necessity. The attitude of the great French philosopher Voltaire was summed up in a single sentence: I hate what you say, but I will defend until death your right to continue speaking. This axiom is applicable to a myriad of situations. This is not limited to college campuses, although the failure of our colleges to educate in freedom bears much of the responsibility for the growing intolerance experienced in our society.

FIRE, in its new incarnation, will have a much wider range of opportunities to influence the culture of free speech in society at large than the original FIRE. He won’t need to have a “campus hook,” so to speak, to tackle a case or cause. Staff members and supporters of the new Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression have their work cut out for them. We wish them success, because success will affect us all, including generations to come.


David French is an editor at The Dispatch and Harvey Silverglate is a lawyer and writer specializing in civil liberties and criminal defense.

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