September 5, 2019 Print

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has led the fight for free speech on college campuses since the organization was founded in 1999. Atlas Network recently provided a $5,000 grant in support of their Individual Rights Defense Program (IRDP), which provides assistance to individual students, professors, and campus groups whose fundamental civil liberties have been violated.

With Atlas Network’s investment in their work, FIRE ramped up the IRDP program, achieving 33 policy wins on 32 individual college campuses throughout the country. “FIRE has had great success reforming ‘red-light’ policies, those campus policies that severely restrict free speech,” explained Zoe Kuenstler, foundation relations officer at FIRE. “Many of those policies, thanks to FIRE’s efforts, are now ‘yellow-light’ policies, meaning the policy clearly restricts a narrow area of expression.”

To illustrate the recent policy changes, Kuenstler pointed to the Media Relations Policy at Loyola University of Chicago. “Although Loyola Chicago is a private institution, it pledges to commit to freedom of expression,” she said, explaining that the Media Relations Policy did not adhere to that commitment. According to Kuenstler, the policy required faculty and staff to obtain public relations staff approval for any statements to the media, including the school newspaper. She pointed out that the policy “frustrated student journalists’ efforts to report on issues impacting the university, including police stop-and-frisk detentions, tuition increases, and women in STEM programs.” 

FIRE opposed this policy, penning a letter to the university calling for it to be removed. The university convened a working group, with FIRE staff included, to revisit the policy and provide recommendations for revision.  

The Media Relations Policy was successfully struck down and replaced with a free speech-compliant one that allows faculty, staff, students, and administrators to respond directly to interview requests from news media. “Ultimately, being open to inquiry and criticism helps show that its brand is sincere,” explained Kuenstler. “The victory showed that good results can come from administrators who take concerns seriously and take steps to address them.” 

As a result of Atlas Network’s increased support, FIRE’s efforts on 32 campuses are responsible for providing students, staff, and administrators with freedom of speech protections available to all Americans. As Kuenstler explained, “freedom of speech is a fundamental constitutional freedom and a human right, and there is no place that this right should be more valued and protected than at America’s colleges and universities.”  

Kuenstler emphasized that Atlas Network’s philanthropic support provided FIRE with the resources needed to confront civil rights abuses on campus and accomplish important policy changes. Without the support of Atlas Network, FIRE would not have won these 33 defense victories during the grant period.” Atlas Network is proud to support FIRE’s IRDP program, and we look forward to following their progress in the upcoming semester.