Because of the social media circus surrounding the Johnny Depp/Amber Heard defamation trial, it was easy to overlook one of the principal—yet least likely—actors in the courtroom drama: the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which ghostwrote and placed the 2018 Washington Post op-ed by Heard about surviving domestic abuse that was the basis of the trial.
It's only the latest example of how the group has in recent years strayed from its original mission of defending speech, no matter how vile. Awash with money after former President Donald Trump was elected, the ACLU transformed into an organization that championed progressive causes, undermining the principled neutrality that helped make it a powerful advocate for the rights of clients ranging from Nazis to socialists.
It questioned the due process rights of college students accused of sexual assault and harassment under Title IX rules. It ran partisan ads against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and for Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, a move that current Executive Director Anthony Romero told The New York Times was a mistake. The ACLU also called for the federal government to forgive $50,000 per borrower in student loans.
As the ACLU recedes from its mission, enter another free speech organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE. Founded in 1999 to combat speech codes on college campuses, FIRE is expanding to go well beyond the university and changing its name to the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. The group has raised $29 million toward a three-year "litigation, opinion research and public education campaign aimed at boosting and solidifying support for free-speech values."
"I think there have been better moments for freedom of speech when it comes to the culture," says FIRE's president, Greg Lukianoff. "When it comes to the law, the law is about as good as it's ever been. But when it comes to the culture, our argument is that it's gotten a lot worse and that we don't have to accept it."
Lukianoff tells Reason that FIRE's new initiatives have been in the works for years, but gained urgency during the COVID lockdowns. "Pretty much from day one, people have been asking us to take our advocacy off campus to an extent nationally," he says. "But 2020 was such a scarily bad year for freedom of speech on campus and off, we decided to accelerate that process." Despite 80 percent of campuses being closed and doing instruction remotely, Lukianoff says that FIRE received 50 percent more requests for help from college students and faculty. He also points to The New York Times' editorial page editor, James Bennet, getting squeezed out after running an article by Sen. Tom Cotton (R–Ark.) and high-profile journalists such as Bari Weiss, Andrew Sullivan, and Matt Yglesias "stepping away from [their publications], saying that the environment was too intolerant."
FIRE is also expanding its efforts beyond legal advocacy and into promoting what Lukianoff calls "the culture of free speech." As Politico reports, it will spend $10 million "in planned national cable and billboard advertising featuring activists on both ends of the political spectrum extolling the virtues of free speech."
He says that people in their 40s and 50s grew up in a country where the culture of free speech was embedded in colloquial sayings and common attitudes. "Things like everyone's entitled to their opinion, which is something you heard all the time when we were kids. It's a free country, to each their own, statements of deep pluralism, like the idea that [you should] walk a mile in a man's shoes," he explains. "All of these things are great principles for taking advantage of pluralism, but they've largely sort of fallen out of usage due to a growing skepticism about freedom of speech, particularly on campus, that's been about 40 years in the making."
Lukianoff has nothing negative to say about the ACLU (in fact, he used to work there) and stresses that FIRE has worked with the organization since "day one" and continues to do so. But unlike the ACLU, FIRE isn't at risk of turning into a progressive advocacy organization, partly because its staff is truly bipartisan.
"This is the first nonprofit I ever worked for where you had people who actually voted for different major-party candidates. When I worked at the ACLU in 1999, people voted for the Democrats or the Green Party," he says, noting that he is himself a liberal. But at FIRE, he continues, "My executive director is a Republican and an evangelical, a fact of which I am extremely proud."
That pluralistic pride extends to the groups funding FIRE, too. He says that critics, especially on Twitter, point to support his organization receives from "conservative and libertarian foundations" as if that invalidates its work. Yes, they give FIRE money, he says. "And you should be very proud of them, because we routinely defend people who hate their guts and we never get any foundation saying that they're taking back our funding."
Lukianoff thinks that despite the rise of cancel culture, most Americans still understand the value of free speech, but they need to be encouraged to stand up for it. FIRE's polling, he says, reveals that "it's really a pretty small minority, particularly pronounced on Twitter, that is anti-free-speech philosophically and thinks that people should shut up and conform."
For that reason, he's upbeat that FIRE will succeed in helping to restore belief in the value and function of free speech. "I think that once you start giving people permission to believe in small d democratic norms again, a lot of people are going to reveal their actual preferences. You know: 'I don't want you to fire Larry for who he voted for or a dumb joke [he] made on Twitter,'" he says. "Part of our job is…reminding younger people about some of these principles because they haven't heard them before. But for most Americans, I think reminding them and giving them permission to believe what most Americans believe…is a reason to be optimistic about it."
This video is based on a longer conversation I had with Lukianoff for The Reason Interview podcast. Listen to that here.
Photo Credits: Tim Evanson, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons; tedeytan, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Ludwig von Mises Institute, via Wikimedia Commons; LvMI, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Stefani Reynolds/CNP / Polaris/Newscom.
Music Credits: "End To End," by Jonny Hughes via Artlist.
Interview by Nick Gillespie. Edited by Regan Taylor.