Promoting Free Societies
A Principled Champion
Photo courtesy of Nycole Knoxx
Adam Martinez worries for his children’s safety from the moment they leave for school in the morning to the moment they return home, and for good reason. His youngest son was present at Robb Elementary School during the horrific mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas in May 2022. Far from assuaging Adam’s fears in the wake of the shooting, many local officials misled the public and eschewed responsibility for the botched police response.
When the Uvalde school district hired a new resource officer with a shady past—whom the local sheriff’s department had already declined to rehire—Adam knew he had to voice his concerns. At a school board meeting, he approached the chief of the Uvalde Schools Police and voiced his concerns individually. The police chief refused to discuss the matter with Adam and demanded he return to his seat.
“All I’ve ever wanted was to speak my mind and be a voice for my community,” Adam said.
The district retaliated against Adam’s speech by banning him from school property, in clear violation of the First Amendment. However, Adam did not have to face being silenced alone. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) came to his defense, prepared to take legal action. The district quickly lifted the ban.
A Peerless Defender
Americans used to take it for granted that the First Amendment safeguarded their right to think and express their opinions freely. However, these rights now have vocal critics on both the left and right, and many institutions that once stood for free expression have stepped back, bowing to partisan pressure.
FIRE is not one of those institutions. In fact, FIRE has only doubled down on its singular mission: to secure justice for any American whose First Amendment rights have been violated and to make sure the legal system reliably protects free speech
FIRE made its name vindicating the speech rights of individuals on campus. One of the premier civil-right organizations in the country, it has energetically defended students and faculty alike, championing free discourse and academic freedom from those who seek to squash disfavored viewpoints.
Broader Focus, Bigger Impact
In 2022, FIRE launched the Expanded Litigation Program to increase its impact as a principled, nonpartisan advocate of free speech. FIRE realized there was a lack of organizations dedicated to defending the First Amendment broadly, and, given their success on college campuses, they decided to widen the scope of their efforts. Nico Perrino, FIRE’s Executive Vice President, said the country was hungry for a principled defender of free speech.
“We had seen a need for an organization in the United States of America that people who care about freedom of expression can rally around when there are threats to that freedom,” Perrino explained.
The First Amendment protects Americans of all ideological and political stripes—and so does FIRE. Since its inception in 2014, FIRE’s Litigation Project, once staffed by a lone full-time employee, has grown into a team of 18, and its myriad successes speak volumes. It has won 23 cases, secured $2.9 million in damages and fees, and filed more than 75 amicus briefs. It has further ensured reforms to 38 campus policies, which has impacted tens of thousands of students and faculty.
FIRE’s position is that both viewpoint suppression and compelled speech violate the First Amendment. They believe that the government can neither silence individuals nor force them to take a stance. For example, in California, the organization has sued to halt a speech code that would mandate that community college professors incorporate “anti-racist” viewpoints and to espouse politicized notions of “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” The organization has elsewhere litigated against state-level censorship regimes that sought outright to ban university professors and private business owners from discussing those same subjects.
FIRE is also dedicated to defending the rights of individuals whose cases don’t implicate hot-button cultural issues, especially those who lack the resources to push back against government censorship.
“A lot of our cases are apolitical,” Nico says. “They just appeal to people across the political spectrum—people who are just the Davids standing up against Goliath.”
For example, FIRE intervened on behalf of activists who spoke out against the Rotenberg Center, a medical facility that is infamous for subjecting autistic patients to electroshock therapy. The Center is also notoriously litigious against those who oppose its inhumane practices.
“FIRE doesn’t give in to bullies—we stand up to them,” said attorney Gabe Walters.
“We’re also defending this man, Jeff Gray, who is a First Amendment auditor,” which is a person that uses activism to test how well government entities respect free speech rights, Nico relates. “He stands in front of city halls with simply a sign that says, ‘God bless homeless vets.’ He’s a vet himself and is removed often for just holding that simple sign.”
Defenses for the Future
FIRE’s work goes beyond molding American legal precedents . The organization is also growing the legal talent needed to expand and carry on this mission into the future.
“The goal isn’t just to litigate these cases,” Nico said, “It’s also to develop a deep bench of First Amendment litigators that we can train to do this sort of work.”
In light of its steadfast, unmatched commitment to safeguarding free speech, Atlas Network selected FIRE as the winner of the 2023 North America Liberty Award and as a finalist for the prestigious 2023 Templeton Freedom Award.
“When we launched our expansion, we didn't know how well it would work out,” Nico said. “Would we be able to get the cases? Would we win the cases? Would we be able to hire the lawyers who could do the good work? And so a year out from that, to receive an award from an organization that we deeply respect and have admired for as long as I've been doing this work means a lot to us.”