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Free-Speech Group Will Spend Millions Promoting First Amendment Cases

Lukianoff said FIRE has raised $28.5 million for a three-year, $75 million litigation, opinion research and public education campaign aimed at strengthening and consolidating the support for the values ​​of freedom of expression.

“There is a very strong belief not just in the First Amendment, but in a culture of free speech that — black or white, liberal or conservative — that most Americans think you should have the right to have. your own opinion and not having to lose your job because of it,” Lukianoff said. “The voices who view free speech as a dirty word on campus or on Twitter are actually a pretty small minority .”

The new initiative includes $10 million in planned national cable and billboard advertising featuring activists from both ends of the political spectrum extolling the virtues of free speech, officials said.

A TV spot features a former Emerson College student, KJ Lynum, whose conservative group was suspended by the school president for circulating “China kinda sus” stickers promoting the theory that a Chinese government laboratory caused the Covid-19 outbreak. ‘Free speech is our right as Americans and we must do everything we can to protect it,’ says Lynum of images of Martin Luther King Jr. and young anti-abortion activist .

Another ad features a Montana State University student, Stefan Klaer, who was ordered to remove a Black Lives Matter banner from his dorm window. “If you silence people, you never hear the other side,” Klaer says.

FIRE’s decision appears to face an uphill battle, with many on the political left disillusioned with unfettered free speech following former President Donald Trump’s successes in perpetuating disinformation. Megaphone social media platforms have given voices spouting untruths also prompted some former free-speech supporters to reconsider their views.

“To think that free speech is the problem here is, I think, to miss the point,” Lukianoff said. “Do I think bad actors abuse that? I do. … There have always been people who have believed in absolutely crazy things. … I’m more afraid of attempts to control Twitter from above than of the cultural damage they produce.”

FIRE’s new expansion is also something of a challenge for the ACLU, which has been criticized in recent years for moving away from its staunchly pro-free speech roots and taking a more direct role in partisan political struggles. .

Many of FIRE’s founders and supporters are former ACLU leaders who became disillusioned with the group under its current executive director, Anthony Romero, who left the Ford Foundation to take over the famed civil liberties organization. in 2001.

In 2020, FIRE released “Mighty Ira,” a rave documentary film about Romero’s predecessor, Ira Glasser, focusing on the ACLU’s work from the 1970s through the 1990s.

Glasser, who sits on a FIRE advisory board, said in an interview that he had “strongly encouraged” FIRE to expand its free speech work in part because the ACLU appears to be giving up that role.

“Once the ACLU has abandoned its traditional role, who else is there?” Glasser asked. “It’s great that the ACLU is fighting for racial and reproductive justice and gay rights. …the idea that you have to reduce the 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, etc. is simply wrong and yet they’ve done it. This created a void in the neutral defense of freedom of expression, which FEU filled.

ACLU officials did not respond to messages Sunday seeking comment on this story.

The ACLU faced internal upheaval in 2017 after its Virginia chapter provided legal assistance to white nationalist groups seeking permits to protest in Charlottesville, Virginia. -old woman who was run over by a car driven by a far-right protester who friends said was obsessed with Hitler.

The ACLU later recalibrated its free speech advocacy, urging its lawyers reviewing cases to also consider “offending to marginalized groups”. Romero also said he would not defend those who sought to participate in protests while armed.

Among those endorsing FIRE’s expansion are former ACLU President Nadine Strossen and former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers.

“I think FIRE spreading its wings is very constructive,” said Summers, who served as president of Harvard University from 2001 to 2006 and national economic adviser from 2009 to 2011 under President Barack Obama.

Summers told POLITICO he was troubled that a “stifling conformity” in discussions of identity issues on college campuses seemed to be spreading.

“We’re seeing some trend of the same imposition of orthodoxy beyond college campuses and some elevation of comfort-seeking versus truth-seeking much more broadly,” Summers said.

Even with FIRE’s planned expansion, the ACLU will continue to eclipse the upstart organization in size and funding. The ACLU received a massive funding boost after Trump’s victory in 2016 and now brings nearly $400 million into its coffers each year. FIRE, on the other hand, raised less than $16 million in its last fiscal year.

And while the ACLU and its affiliates are involved in hundreds of court cases each year in 19 policy areas ranging from voting rights to privacy to immigration, FIRE has had just six cases litigated. active during the last fiscal year, according to its annual Internal Revenue Service filing.

FIRE says that since its debut in 1999, it has won more than 500 public victories for students and faculty, secured 425 campus policy changes, and helped reduce the prevalence of highly restrictive speech codes on campus. .

While FIRE has received praise from many free speech advocates, some critics have said the group is a thinly veiled front for conservatives seeking to push their political agenda. Since its inception, FIRE has received funding from various conservative foundations, including millions from some linked to billionaire Charles Koch.

Lukianoff declined to detail who contributed the $28 million for the new initiative or what prompted them to offer funding.

However, he said, in the last financial year, about 69% of FIRE’s funding came from individual donors and about 31% from foundations.

Lukianoff acknowledged his disappointment with mainstream liberal foundations, which have been reluctant to support FIRE’s efforts. “It’s been frustrating,” he said, adding, “Most FIRE employees lean politically to the left.”

Lukianoff said his group also regularly defends left-leaning students and faculty members when their freedom of expression is threatened.

“We are genuinely non-partisan in the cases we take,” he said.


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