FAN 38.1 (First Amendment News) FIRE bursts on out in NYC — Free speech celebration draws committed crowd

FlameandFIRE-390x195EXPLOSIVE. That is as good as any a word to describe the high energy level at the 15th Anniversary dinner of FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), the group founded by Harvey Silvergate and  Alan Charles Kors in 1999. People were yelling “FIRE” in the crowded hall all evening long.

Some 280 people came together on Thursday evening last week at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in NYC. They gathered to show their enthusiastic support for this non-partisan free speech group. Contrary to the mood of our times, liberals, conservatives and libertarians joined together in common cause to endorse FIRE’s campaign to contest unconstitutional campus speech codes.

Guests included Radley BalkoJoan BertinPaul BloomRobert Corn-Revere, Alan Dershowitz, Norman DorsenDonald DownsJoel Gora, Jonathan HaidtWendy Kaminer, Roger KimballMichael McConnellKirsten Powers, Lenore SkenazyNadine Strossen, Matt Welch, and Karen Gantz Zahler, among others.

Morgan Freeman

Morgan Freeman

Students speak out

Aided by film clips on two big screens (see video here), four student activists who challenged campus speech codes spoke of their experiences. They were: Merritt Burch, Morgan Freeman, Chris Lee, and Robert Van Tuinen.

Two Speakers: A First Amendment Lawyer & a Cognitive Scientist 

There were two speeches, which further fired up the audience. The first speech was by the noted First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams. His remarks were entitled “Free Speech is in Trouble on Campus.” Here is an excerpt:

[O]nly FIRE … would think of and then respond to the explosion of unconstitutional speech codes that limit student and faculty speech as it did just last month by threatening over 300 colleges with litigation challenging such rules. And only FIRE would do the detailed work of reading each speech code so it could announce that 58% of public colleges and universities are, right now, acting unconstitutionally in limiting sometimes discomforting but First Amendment protected speech, on campus, and then follow that up by actually commencing lawsuits in this area. .  . . FIRE, from the day it was created, has understood this and sought to expose it and deal with it. We are in the midst of an epidemic and FIRE is providing an antidote. 

→ Steven Pinker (the  noted experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist, linguist, and popular science author and Harvard professor) spoke after Abrams.  His remarks were titled “Three Reasons to Affirm Free Speech.” Here is an excerpt from his remarks:

Free speech is the only way to acquire knowledge about the world. Perhaps the greatest discovery in human history—one that is logically prior to every other discovery—is that all of our traditional sources of belief are in fact generators of error and should be dismissed as sources of knowledge. These include faith, revelation, dogma, authority, charisma, augury, prophesy, intuition, clairvoyance, conventional wisdom, and the warm glow of subjective certainty.

Greg Lukianoff — The FIRE Man

Greg Lukianoff

Greg Lukianoff

He is like no other — Lukianoff, FIRE’s president, is a man full of ideas, energy, and the smarts to make it all work. Author, pamphleteeractivist, and Stanford Law graduate, this 40-year-old who grew up in Danbury, CT is changing the world around him by bringing the First Amendment to the doorstep of college bureaucrats bent on squelching freedom of speech and conscience. And Lukianoff and FIRE are winning; they have prevailed (either by a court victory or a settlement) in every one of the challenges they have brought — and they are busily preparing many more. Beyond the courtroom, Lukianoff regularly takes his free-speech message to the pubic, either by testifing before Congress or appearing on the O’Reilly Factor, the CBS Evening News, or by publishing an op-ed in this or that newspaper. Regardless of one’s ideological stripes, he is always prepared to make a strong case for the First Amendment.

Meanwhile, Greg Lukianoff and his colleagues at FIRE have cases pending against the following six colleges:

  1. University of Hawaii at Hilo
  2. Western Michigan University
  3. Chicago State University
  4. Citrus College
  5. Iowa State University, and
  6. Ohio University

 Full disclosure: I attended as a guest of the Davis Wright Tremaine law firm, which works with FIRE in litigating campus speech code cases.

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2 Responses

  1. Unfortunately, FIRE and the students they assist aren’t always victorious: Here’s an excerpt from the Afterward of the paperback version of Greg’s book, Unlearning Liberty, page 248:

    “Unfortunately, not all courts have reached the right decision in the last year and a half. In July 2013, a federal district judge decided to dismiss the case of Joseph Corlett, the student who submitted the “Hot for Teacher” piece (see Chapter 9) for his writing class after asking multiple times if he really could write anything he wanted and receiving repeated assurance that he could and encouragement to do so. The judge let his distaste for Corlett’s speech dictate his interpretation of the law, choosing to import a standard from Bethel School District v. Fraser, a 1986 case in which the Supreme Court ruled that high schools can punish students for lewd or vulgar speech. The Bethel opinion does not apply to college students, who have far greater expressive rights than those in high school, and is completely incompatible with the Supreme Court’s position on freedom of speech in the context of higher education. In 1973, in Papish v. Board of Curators of the University of Missouri et al., the court explicitly ruled that college campuses may not limit speech “based on the conventions of decency alone.” Hopefully, judges in future cases won’t let their personal discomfort with what a student says interfere with their interpretation of the law.”

  2. FIRE is proud to have won every case that we have coordinated as part of both our earlier Speech Code Litigation Project and our Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project​, but that does not mean every case we have helped with has won in court​.

    As you know, Joe, we remain extremely disappointed by the way your situation concluded. As I discussed in my book, I strongly believe your case was wrongly decided and I wish you and your attorneys had achieved a better result.