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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

FIRE expands free-speech advocacy

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education is renaming itself the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (still FIRE) as it moves beyond college campuses to defend free speech everywhere. Part of the First Amendment campaign may challenge the American Civil Liberties Union’s primacy as a defender of free speech, writes Josh Gerstein on Politico.

“There’s a very strong belief in not just the First Amendment, but a culture of freedom of speech that — black or white, liberal or conservative — that most Americans think you should be entitled to your own opinion and not have to lose your job over that,” Greg Lukianoff, the group’s president, said. “The voices that think of free speech as a dirty word on campus or on Twitter are actually a pretty small minority.”

FIRE plans to spend $10 million on ads encouraging free-speech values.

One TV spot includes a former Emerson College student, K.J. Lynum, whose conservative group was suspended by the school’s president for circulating “China kinda sus” stickers promoting the theory that a Chinese government lab caused the oubreak of Covid-19. “Freedom of speech is our right as Americans and we must do everything we can to protect it,” Lynum says over images of Martin Luther King Jr. and a young anti-abortion activist. Another ad features a Montana State University student, Stefan Klaer, who was ordered to take down a Black Lives Matter banner from his dorm room window. “If you silence people, you never get to hear the other side,” Klaer says.

“Many of FIRE’s founders and backers are former leaders of the ACLU who have grown disillusioned” with the group’s shift from civil liberties since 2001, writes Gerstein. Former ACLU President Ira Glasser, who serves on a FIRE advisory board, said the ACLU has prioritized “fighting for racial and reproductive justice and gay rights.”

“The notion that you have to reduce your vigor with which you defend First Amendment rights or you will damage the strength of your advocacy for equal rights for women, gays, and Blacks, et cetera is just demonstrably not true and, yet, they’ve done that,” Glasser told Gerstein. “It has created a vacuum in the viewpoint-neutral defense of free speech, which FIRE has filled.”

“The ACLU now seems largely unable or unwilling to uphold its core values,” writes Lara Bazelon, a University of San Francisco law professor, in The Atlantic.

. . . since Trump’s election, according to The New York Times, the organization’s annual budget has grown threefold and its lawyer staff has doubled — but only four of its attorneys specialize in free-speech issues, a number that has not changed in a decade. Instead, the ACLU has expanded its services — and filled its coffers — as it takes partisan stances or embraces dubious causes.

The ACLU is supposed to defend all sides, writes Bazelon. “Yet in 2018, the ACLU spent $800,000 on a campaign ad for Stacey Abrams during her run for governor in Georgia and $1 million in an attack-ad campaign against Brett Kavanaugh during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings.”

The ACLU’s role in Johnny Depp’s $50 million defamation lawsuit against ex-wife Amber Heard shows how the group has “lost its way,” writes Bazelon. Heard  promised to donate $3.5 million to the ACLU in exchange for being named an “ambassador on women’s rights with a focus on gender-based violence.” The ACLU ghost-wrote a Washington Post op-ed that led to the defamation lawsuit.

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