Free speech watchdog's expansion beyond campus could set up conflicts with conservatives on kids

Newly rebranded Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, popular with conservatives in higher ed, has been critical of CRT bans.

Updated: June 6, 2022 - 10:28pm

As controversies over sexuality, gender identity and children heat up across the country, in drag bars as well as K-12 classrooms, a civil liberties group focused on higher education is entering the fray with an expanded mission that could put it on a collision course with red states.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a haven for free-speech advocates disillusioned by the ACLU's pivot following the Charlottesville "Unite the Right" rally in 2017, rebranded itself Monday the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression.

President Greg Lukianoff said it came to realize FIRE must fight for free speech everywhere to protect it anywhere and "teach younger Americans that everything from scientific progress, to artistic expression, to social justice, peace, and living authentic lives requires the staunch protection of freedom of speech for all."

FIRE has raised more than a third of a planned $75 million for an expansion initiative focused on "litigation, public education, and research" off campus, the 23-year-old group said in a press release that announced its "next chapter" would be unveiled at a gala in April.

It had only six active lawsuits in the previous fiscal year. One of its most prominent legal challenges — to the Obama administration's "unlawful" Title IX sexual misconduct rules, likely to be resurrected soon by the Biden administration — ended when the Trump administration rescinded the guidance. 

FIRE is earmarking $10 million for an advertising campaign encompassing billboards in 15 markets, as well as cable TV and digital spots that share personal stories from the left and right about free speech, including a Green Beret ex-NFL player who supported quarterback Colin Kaepernick's kneeling during the National Anthem.

Former ACLU Executive Director Ira Glasser, the subject of FIRE's 2020 documentary "Mighty Ira," told Politico he "strongly encouraged" FIRE to go beyond campus because the ACLU has "back[ed] off its traditional role" and "created a vacuum in the viewpoint-neutral defense of free speech, which FIRE has filled." 

Law professor Nadine Strossen, the ACLU's former national president, previously told Just the News she has no problem criticizing its current direction but thinks its alleged abandonment of free speech is overblown.

The ACLU didn't respond to queries.

"The ACLU has 19 issue areas, we have one," FIRE Director of Communications Nico Perrino, who produced the documentary, told Just the News. "We regularly work with the ACLU on campus and now look forward to doing so off campus, as well." 

What's different now is it will be a multifaceted, "unapologetic defender of free speech culture in America" with a "unique brand of public messaging," while still working with other free speech groups toward "shared goals," he said.

It will primarily litigate against government censorship but also "sometimes comment on the actions of private companies if their actions bolster or run contrary to a culture of free speech," Perrino said.

FIRE is also hiring for a slew of new positions, including a "rapid response director" who will identify and seek to "own" free speech stories in the news, and opening a new tip line for "off-campus free speech legal case submissions." It launched a legal defense fund for faculty last year.

FIRE has long advocated for left-wing professors punished for their speech — and even tried to tank Florida's intellectual diversity legislation, after working with its authors, due to new provisions it said would chill speech

The organization has also lobbied to stop state bills against race and sex stereotyping that ban the teaching of "divisive concepts" such as critical race theory even in college classrooms. President Greg Lukianoff has criticized specific bills for vague language that could also threaten K-12 teachers for teaching history that upsets students.

Despite such stances, FIRE has largely avoided sustained and open clashes with conservatives. In its expansion beyond higher education, however, its approach to censorship could put it at odds with a unified right and non-woke left that have mobilized in recent months against the alleged sexualization of children and intentional gender confusion promoted in public schools.

New controversies over bringing children to Pride Month events recall earlier advocacy against "Drag Queen Story Hour" events for children in libraries, the subject of FIRE podcasts three years ago. One featured its former president and writer David French, whose name became a slur among conservatives for his opposition to such bans.

A top Republican candidate for Michigan governor pledged to criminalize bringing children to drag shows following viral videos and photos of children at a Dallas gay bar's "Drag the Kids to Pride" event, billed as "family friendly" despite a wall sign that reads "it's not going to lick itself." A Texas state lawmaker also promised legislation to ban children from drag shows.

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Asked whether it might challenge bans on sexuality and gender identity programming targeting children or punishments for programmers, and how that might impact its relationship with conservatives, FIRE's Perrino was coy.

"With our expanded mission, we will now actively seek cases off campus, including in the K-12 environment," he wrote in an email. "We will fight back against censors, wherever they are, regardless of their political party or affiliation."

Pressed again, Perrino said the group will have "more to say about the many different off-campus free speech issues we will now confront in the coming days, months, and years," but the extent of its involvement in litigation is determined by "the specific facts of any individual case."

Perrino pointed Just the News to Lukianoff's 2021 essay on reforming K-12 education as a guiding document for FIRE's new direction. 

Its recommendations include letting students "question or dissent from the moral education [school] provides without fear of punishment," not reducing students to "politically useful categories" based on identity, and refusing to teach them the "untruths" of fragility, emotional reasoning and "us versus them."