If the ACLU Won’t Defend Free Speech, FIRE Will

The previously education-focused free speech organization is rebranding—and looking to protect civil liberties off campus, too.

On Monday, the nonpartisan organization the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) rebranded as the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression.

Calling itself “America’s leading defender of free speech, due process, and academic freedom in higher education” in a statement, the group says it now intends to fight for free speech off campus as well. It will specifically be launching a $10 million public messaging campaign promoting the values of free expression more broadly, not just in education. 

The timing of this move is noteworthy, considering that protecting free expression is something the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has historically been known for, but has specifically backed away from in recent years. 

FIRE President & CEO Greg Lukianoff appeared to hint that his organization intended to fill the defending free speech gap.

America needs a new nonpartisan defender of free speech that will advocate unapologetically for this fundamental human right in both the court of law and the court of public opinion,” said Lukianoff. “FIRE has a proven track record of defeating censorship on campus. We are excited to now bring that same tireless advocacy to fighting censorship off campus.”

On the advisory board for FIRE is former ACLU Executive Director Ira Glasser, who served as the executive director of that group for over two decades. Glasser has criticized the ACLU for backing away from its original mission of defending not only free speech but distasteful speech.

In an exchange with HBO’s Bill Maher in January, Glasser explained his problem with the current trajectory of the ACLU.

YouTube player

Maher asked his guest, Glasser, “So you were a head of this organization for 25 years, almost, from 1978 into this century. It’s changing. It was a stalwart defender of free speech and civil liberties. Is it still that?”

“Not as much,” Glasser replied. 

“They just produced a couple of years ago new guidelines for their lawyers to use when deciding what free speech cases to take,” the ex-ACLU man explained. “This is a requirement now for the national ACLU employers, that before they take a case defending someone’s free speech they have to make sure that the speech doesn’t offend or threaten other civil liberties values.”

“In other words, before they’re going to defend your free speech, they want to see what you say,” a worried-looking Glasser continued. “What is the ACLU doing saying that?”

Maher replied, “I read that quote. The phrase was ‘values contrary to…’

Glasser jumped in, “Our values.”

Maher then stated the obvious, “Our values,’ but your value is free speech.”

 “I mean, the most famous case, you defended the Nazis being able to march in Skokie, Illinois in 1977,” Maher recalled. “Okay, I’m guessing the Nazis did not reflect your values.”

“That’s a good guess,” Glasser replied. “Actually, most of the speech we defended didn’t reflect our values. That’s the point.”

Independent journalist and free speech advocate Glenn Greenwald shared the news about FIRE’s rebranding, adding that, “As the ACLU has degraded into a standard left-liberal cultural advocacy group with occasional free speech defenses, FIRE has become the genuine free speech advocacy group regardless of party or ideology.”

FIRE’s statement also noted that “The $75 million expansion initiative will focus on three main areas of programming: litigation, public education, and research.” 

FIRE is hiring new staff and is now soliciting case submissions from Americans who believe their free speech rights have been violated.

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Jack Hunter
Jack Hunterhttp://LibertyTree.com
Jack Hunter is a freelance writer, the co-author of Sen. Rand Paul’s 2011 book ‘The Tea Party Goes to Washington’ and the former politics editor for Rare.us.