Friday, April 27, 2007

I Come to Praise FIRE

The folks at FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) have been understandably upset by Jon Gould’s attack on them in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Gould wrote a very good, if narrow, book on campus speech codes, so I’m not sure I understand why he went apeshit on FIRE. Gould is right to call FIRE on its failure to target religious colleges. And Gould is right to criticize FIRE because “FIRE declared that as many as 96 percent of top-ranked colleges ‘prohibit speech that, outside the borders of campus, is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.’" FIRE is right to criticize these campus codes (I think it’s closer to 100 percent) for unjustifiably restricting free speech, but they’re technically incorrect to claim that these restrictions are not made outside of campuses. In reality, there are plenty of public spaces where free speech falls short, and college campuses are often far better at protecting free speech than, saying, most parts of the Bush Administration.
FIRE defends itself very well against Gould, but I have a quibble: Greg Lukianoff, the head of FIRE, writes, “FIRE defends the rights of those from all points of the political spectrum and we take flack from all points of the political spectrum about one case or another—which indicates to me that we are doing something right! We are uniquely nonpartisan, a reality that is reflected in our founders, our Board of Directors, our Board of Advisors, and, most of all, our staff.”
The “nonpartisan” aspect of FIRE was primarily that it united Republicans and Democrats who both denounced the campus left. Of course, FIRE also defends liberals (and is attacked behind the scenes by the far right for straying from conservatives), and the campus left often deserves to be denounced. But to contend that the book “The Shadow University” (which led to the creation of FIRE) is a neutral, even-handed assessment of all viewpoints censored in academia would be nothing short of ludicrous. The question is, how much has FIRE evolved from its right-wing/libertarian origins to become a neutral group defending all viewpoints. The answer is, somewhat, especially since Greg Lukianoff took over as the head of the group (and I have an enormous amount of admiration for Greg and the work he’s done). I still believe FIRE should be described (and praised) as a “conservative civil liberties group,” just as the ACLU should be called a “liberal civil liberties group” even though it also defends conservatives, and Greg Lukianoff always gets pissed off at me for saying this. And I also believe that FIRE deserves to be criticized for some of its minor failings, such as refusing to criticize the Academic Bill of Rights (which is led in part by Candace de Russy, who is on FIRE’s Board of Advisors even though she is one of the leading enemies of academic freedom in America).
I only think the conservative tendencies of FIRE should be pointed out because I disagree with some of the generalizations made by FIRE (and a few of its specific stands) about the threats to campus speech. I’m sure that my own obviously accurate views about free speech on campus will be called “liberal” by those on the right, which is fine.
Here’s the letter I wrote to the Chronicle of Higher Education (who knows if they plan to publish it): “Jon Gould (Chronicle Review, April 20) is right to challenge FIRE’s hypocrisy in failing to address what are unquestionably the worst campus speech codes in America, those at conservative religious colleges typically used to repress liberal ideas. However, Gould is wrong when he denounces FIRE’s campaign against speech codes, and ignores the enormous value of FIRE’s work in individual cases. Many campus speech codes are unconstitutionally vague, and nearly every college has unnecessary restrictions on free speech, even if these codes might be legally upheld and even if other institutions in our society are far worse censors. The proper response is not to dismiss FIRE over occasional disagreements, but to create a similar organization to support campus civil liberties which will address the threats that FIRE tends to avoid. Sadly, there is more than enough repression on college campuses for all of us to share in the fight against it.”
John K. Wilson
Chicago, IL
the author is founder of the Institute for College Freedom ( and author of “Patriotic Correctness: Academic Freedom and Its Enemies” (Paradigm Publishers, August 2007).

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