Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

Let the FIRE Burn


Given the horrific events at Virginia Tech, I have ignored a rather dishonest hit piece (subscription required) directed against my old employer, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.   The article, written by Jon B. Gould, accuses FIRE of exaggerating the prevalence of speech codes, of hypocrisy in targeting secular private schools while ignoring alleged abuses in religious colleges, and of essentially being nothing more than a conservative attack dog against the virtuous campus left.

At FIRE’s blog, its talented staff has systematically dismantled Gould’s argument, but I don’t mind piling on.  As FIRE’s former president, I feel that I have some insight into the organization and how it works.  Now, the Goulds of the world will see that I’m a conservative who currently works for (oh, the horror) a conservative Christian organization and they will feel vindicated — as if the fact that FIRE used to employ a conservative president definitively establishes that it is a conservative organization.  To some ideologues, the mere fact that I’m conservative will discredit anything I have to say on this topic, but for those with even a slightly open mind, there are some facts worth considering.

First, regarding speech codes, I will believe that FIRE exaggerates the prevalence of speech codes the day that a federal judge upholds as lawful a code that FIRE labels “red” in the Spotlight database.  We can argue about legal interpretations all day long, but federal judges make the ultimate decision, and so far FIRE hasn’t gotten one wrong yet.  Since 2003 alone, “red” rated speech codes at Shippensburg University, Texas Tech, and Temple have been struck down by federal courts.  Many other universities have agreed to rewrite their codes when faced with a lawsuit, including Penn State, Georgia Tech, and SUNY Brockport.  And the codes at these schools are not unique.  They are representative of the codes at hundreds of other universities.  Until FIRE’s record drops below 100%, I think I’ll trust FIRE’s ratings.

Second, when it comes to private schools, Gould’s accusation of hypocrisy and double standards is so demonstrably wrong that it makes one wonder if he did any homework at all before he wrote the article.  To just pull one example, the most difficult case for me personally during my time at FIRE was FIRE’s decision to take on Catholic University over its rejection of a local chapter of the NAACP, a pro-abortion organization.  My undergraduate degree is from a Christian university, I have high regard for Catholic University, and I am passionately pro-life.  I believe the battle to ban abortion (really infanticide) is one of the greatest (if not the greatest) human rights battle of our time.  Yet the FIRE philosophy is clear (and right): deliver the rights you promise your students.  If you promise free speech and free association, you must give your students free speech and free association.  Catholic University promised both, and we held them to their promise.  At the same time, private schools have a First Amendment right to define their own mission and message.  FIRE is nothing if not respectful of the First Amendment and would never violate its own commitment to free speech and free association by attacking a school that openly and honestly states its purpose and policies.

Finally, let me just say a bit about FIRE’s president, FIRE’s staff, and FIRE’s board.  Greg Lukianoff is a dear friend and an amazingly talented lawyer.  He is not conservative.  Aside from our shared love for Battlestar Galactica and for the free exchange of ideas, there’s not a lot we have in common.  But I will tell you this: Greg is scrupulously committed to fairness and principle.  He truly protects free speech as an end, not as a means.  Fire’s staff runs across the ideological spectrum (I should know: I hired several of them) and that intellectual diversity (what a novel concept!) acts as a firewall against ideological favoritism.  This commitment to ideological impartiality extends to the Founders (Alan Charles Kors and Harvey Silverglate) and the Board of Directors.  During my time at FIRE, the Board took great care to supervise me and to make sure that I shared FIRE’s commitment to free speech for everyone — not just for my fellow conservatives.

Gould seems to think FIRE should be extinguished, that the academy protects free speech and the marketplace of ideas.  He is clearly and demonstrably wrong.  Until universities respect the fundamental freedoms of their students and professors, the FIRE must keep burning.


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