September 24, 2016 Print

Nearly half of America’s colleges and universities maintain blatantly unconstitutional speech codes, which are the draconian and illiberal policies that administrators use to silence unpopular and inconvenient speech on campus. That’s why Philadelphia-based FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) is fighting back with its Legislative and Policy Project, which has been named one of six finalists for this year’s prestigious $100,000 Templeton Freedom Award, which will be awarded at Freedom Dinner 2016.

Freedom Dinner

From restrictions on passing out copies of the Constitution and kangaroo court disciplinary procedures to demarcating special “free speech” zones, the erosion of the right to expression across college campuses has transformed our revered “marketplace of ideas” into an enclave of petty authoritarianism. Launched in 2012, FIRE’s Legislative and Policy Project confronts campus administrators, legislators, and federal agencies who stifle speech and violate student and faculty members’ rights.

“Over the past several years, trends emerging off campus and inside the halls of government have opened a new front in the battle for liberty,” said Greg Lukianoff, president and CEO of FIRE. “Today, in addition to campus administrators intent on stifling speech, students and professors face federal mandates that weaken due process protections, legislation that proposes overbroad harassment standards or double jeopardy provisions, and national regulations that threaten to silence wide swaths of free expression. These, and numerous other regulatory efforts, are evidence of a growing threat, as federal and state officials increasingly police campus life — and campus expression. Such overregulation will only amplify the already toxic power of campus censorship and stymie the free competition of ideas, further jeopardizing the academy’s role as a democratic laboratory of inquiry, debate, and innovation.”

Successful record of defending campus freedom

FIRE has successfully defended speech and due process rights on countless campuses, and stands alone as the leading and most effective advocate for students and faculty members in the United States. FIRE’s advocacy has helped stem the tide of federal overreach and laid the groundwork for policies that protect the rights of students and professors to express themselves openly and without fear.

“Through ongoing communication with congressional and state representatives, FIRE is able to guard current legislative protections, fight against problematic bills and threatening amendments, and work to enshrine new defenses for student rights in the law,” Lukianoff said. “Our lobbying efforts are directed at specific legislative debates such as the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, as well as more general discussions about student privacy and freedom of the press. In pursuing these issues, FIRE publishes commentary and recommendations analyzing how legislation and regulations will affect student rights, issues open letters warning of the dangers of certain initiatives, testifies before congressional committees on critical threats to civil liberties on campus, analyzes legislation and proposes rights-friendly legislative language, and coordinates meetings with representatives in Washington, D.C., and state capitals around the country to advance our position on key debates.”

Reforming interpretive regulatory guidance

Although legislative requirements are often direct threats to campus liberty, many of the latest violations of student and faculty rights instead result from the interpretive guidance of regulatory agencies. FIRE focuses a considerable amount of energy advocating for the reform of this guidance at the federal level in order to set a stronger legal precedent of protection for individual rights in higher education.

“The project communicates with key federal agencies such as the Department of Education and Department of Justice to convey our concerns about the dangers of mandates that ignore due process and free speech protections by coordinating direct outreach and issuing open letters,” Lukianoff said. “In order to generate support for those efforts, FIRE also enlists legislators, policy organizations, and members of oversight groups such as the United States Commission on Civil Rights as allies. By enlisting this support, FIRE ensures that regulators face criticism from a wide array of sources they cannot ignore. This regulatory advocacy is paired with FIRE’s ongoing legal advocacy, which endeavors to strengthen the existing court protections for student rights through direct litigation, the submission of amicus briefs in strategic cases, legal scholarship, active campus defense and policy initiatives, and networking with attorney allies.”

Building coalitions with fellow policy organizations

In order to gain support for its efforts in these legislative, regulatory, and legal fields, FIRE also works to build coalitions of organizations and individuals concerned with the deterioration of student and faculty rights. FIRE has worked with the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Coalition Against Censorship, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Individual Rights Foundation, and many other organizations that hope to stem the tide of restrictions on controversial expression.

“FIRE partners with fellow policy organizations, opening new doors to legislative opportunities, amplifying our voice on significant debates, and strengthening current legal coalitions,” Lukianoff said. “More broadly, the project works to educate the public through publicity and media initiatives. By increasing media coverage of legislation and regulations that threaten student rights and bringing these issues into the collective public consciousness, FIRE is able to leverage public outrage and create widespread pressure for reform. The project generates such awareness through analysis in key national outlets, resources and articles on FIRE’s website, appearances on national radio and television programs, in-person appearances, campus presentations, student outreach, and multimedia and social media campaigns, thereby guaranteeing a wide reach for our efforts.”

In less than five years, this comprehensive strategy has achieved considerable success. FIRE has successfully eliminated a legislative mandate that would have abandoned students’ fundamental right to fair standards of evidence; brought consensus on a regulation that requires colleges to allow both complaining and accused students to be accompanied in disciplinary hearings by the advisor of their choice; turned the public spotlight on the low evidentiary standards for campus sexual misconduct proceedings; initially worked with six schools to change their unconstitutional speech codes that covered more than 90,000 students, and later expanded that accomplishment to 21 schools and more than 415,000 students; advocated for the passage of new laws protecting freedom of association for religious and belief-based student organizations in Virginia, which served as a model for Idaho; brought right-to-counsel due process provisions into state law in North Carolina, Arkansas, and North Dakota; and helped pass legislation banning restrictive “free speech zones” in Virginia and Missouri.

“While legislative and regulatory threats remain very real, FIRE has ensured that they do not go unanswered,” Lukianoff said. “By expanding the fight for campus liberty to new fronts, the project has been able to expose — and in many cases, defeat — those trends that imperil fundamental freedoms at American colleges and universities. Just as importantly, it has contributed to a larger national discussion about how necessary these freedoms are to academic inquiry, entrepreneurial success, and democratic prosperity. Ultimately, by eliminating those legislative and regulatory barriers that threaten free expression and individual rights, FIRE’s Legislative and Policy Project hopes to restore the competition of ideas that serves as the heart of free enterprise and the core of our free society.”

About the Templeton Freedom Award and the additional 2016 finalists

Awarded since 2004, the Templeton Freedom Award is named for the late investor and philanthropist Sir John Templeton. The award annually honors his legacy by identifying and recognizing the most exceptional and innovative contributions to the understanding of free enterprise, and the public policies that encourage prosperity, innovation, and human fulfillment via free competition. The award is generously supported by Templeton Religion Trust and will be presented during Atlas Network’s Freedom Dinner on Nov. 10 in New York City at the historic Capitale. The winning organization will receive a $100,000 prize, and five additional finalists will receive $25,000 prizes. In addition to FIRE, other nominees for the 2016 Templeton Freedom Award include:

For media inquiries about the 2016 Templeton Freedom Award, contact Daniel Anthony at Daniel.Anthony@AtlasNetwork.org or (202) 449-8441.