The FIRE This Time

At the tenth anniversary dinner last night for FIRE—the Foundation for Individual Rights and Education—I asked Robert Sibley of the group if they were still winning 97% of their cases filed for student freedom. Greg Lukianoff, head of fire, gave me that statistic two or three years ago. “It may have dropped down a notch or two,” Sibley said, explaining that college administrators have adopted more complicated and devious (my word) tactics to ward off reform. In the old days, colleges and universities simply assumed they could violate student rights without explanation. Now the yen to censor is just as strong, but the major tactic is to tiptoe around the free speech issue by depicting the offending students and faculty as perpetrators of punishable acts. Students who stage satirical bake sales, for instance, making fun of affirmative action by charging different prices for cookies depending on the race or gender of the buyer, are shut down on various premises. Sometimes administrations rule that the pricing is unfair (the whole point of the satire) or that the students lacked a health permit for their sale. Another example: At East Georgia College a professor who protested a star-chamber sexual harassment policy, is being accused of sexual harassment for doing so. Before the rise of FIRE, colleges wouldn’t have bothered to obfuscate so clumsily.

The keynote speaker at the dinner, Nat Hentoff, looking a bit frail at 84, continued his lifelong habit of criticizing anyone, left or right, who refuses to live by the Constitution. He referred to our current president as “George W. Obama” for refusing to end his predecessor’s rendition program. Another brief sally brought a mini-protest from the floor. Hentoff referred caustically to a lamentable ACLU decision to gag its own board members rather than risk heated debate in public. Nadine Strossen, former head of the ACLU, rose from her seat, pronounced herself offended, and stalked out of the room. Hentoff ignored the disruption and later praised Strossen for her many defenses of free speech.

The main speaker was Eugene Volokh, who teaches constitutional law at UCLA and runs the elegant legal blog, The Volokh Conspiracy. He said many students today assume they have a right not be offended, an assumption amplified by college speech codes that ban ridicule and hurting the feelings of anyone on campus. He urged the audience to keep the pressure on for student rights, quoting former Senator Everett Dirksen, “When I feel the heat, I see the light.” Volokh was optimistic. Things are much better than they were in the 70’s, he said, and the law is on our side.

For an example of the preposterous campaigns some colleges conduct, and how FIRE responds, see the following post by KC Johnson, who contributes frequently to this site.

John Leo

John Leo is the editor of Minding the Campus, dedicated to chronicling imbalances within higher education and restoring intellectual pluralism to our American universities. His popular column, "On Society," ran in U.S.News & World Report for 17 years.

One thought on “The FIRE This Time”

  1. John Leo’s post about FIRE’s Tenth Anniversary Dinner, from which former ACLU president Nadine Strossen noisily walked out, erred in several significant ways:
    Nat Hentoff did not praise Nadine Strossen; indeed he took sharp exception in his talk to how Strossen and the leadership of the ACLU had violated the free speech rights of two ACLU National Board members, Wendy Kaminer and myself–a leadership, he explained, that threatened to remove Wendy Kaminer and me from the ACLU National Board because of our dissent. Hentoff even urged people to read the details of the ACLU’s shameful opposition to dissent within its ranks by reading Wendy Kaminer’s recently published book, “Worst instincts.”
    Also, Nat Hentoff, from the podium, reading his remarks, in what was a dimly lighted hotel ballroom, did not notice Strossen’s walkout during his speech. He was told afterwards about her protestations and walkout by those of us who were stunned and appalled by Strossen’s rudeness–Strossen noisily interrupted and heckled Hentoff while he was speaking with her protestations of how she disagreed with what he was saying. Finally, Strossen stood up and announced that she was showing her strong dissent from Hentoff’s blast at the ACLU’s leadership by leaving. And she stalked out of the ballroom.
    Nat Hentoff DID–as he often does–praise ACLU staff lawyers who continue to do good work despite the hypocritical behavior and waywardness on free speech concerns of the ACLU leadership.
    Michael Meyers, Executive Director
    New York Civil Rights Coalition, and former ACLU National Board Member

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