As a regular reader of FIRE’s blog, I was a bit surprised to read a lengthy entry from Greg Lukianoff defending FIRE’s decision not to publicly condemn Liberty University for de-recognizing the campus chapter of College Democrats (I wrote about the controversy here). It’s not that I’m surprised by FIRE’s stance on the case. Instead, I’m surprised that even some who follow FIRE closely still don’t get its mission or its purpose.
I’ll put this very clearly and simply. FIRE defends civil liberties in higher education. It defends free speech and free association — and not just the free speech and free association of those groups it likes. (Such an approach would actually cause an internal meltdown at FIRE since the staff spans the entire ideological spectrum. Universities talk about diversity. FIRE lives it.)
As a faithful defender of civil liberties, FIRE respects the civil liberties of private organizations. As a faithful defender of the rights of students, FIRE protects students from broken promises. When a private university, however, acts in a manner that is consistent with its stated mission and purpose, it is exercising its own civil liberties, not violating student rights. As faithful defenders of liberty, FIRE recognizes (and protects) the right of private organizations to not just advance a particular message but to also exclude those who don’t agree with that message.
As Greg rightly notes, private religious colleges can pay a rather high price for adhering to their mission (which is one reason why so many religious colleges abandon that identity as they try to, for example, race up the U.S. News rankings). The pool of potential students is smaller, and secular respect can be hard to achieve. But as a graduate of a similar school (I had chapel five days a week, not three . . . get with the program, Liberty), I suspect that Liberty’s ultimate hope and trust for its future and its reputation is found somewhere other than in the pages of the Washington Post.