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Magazines > Information Today > April 2023

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Information Today
Vol. 40 No. 3 — April 2023
FIRE Fighting for Free Speech
by Mick O'Leary

Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression


The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE; ) is a nonprofit that supports free speech, particularly in higher education. It produces several databases dealing with the status of free speech in a sample of U.S. colleges and universities.

In America’s culture wars, some of the fiercest battles are fought in higher education, particularly over matters of speech. One person’s free speech is an­other’s trigger warning, and terms such as “woke” and “safe space” are either badges of honor or the refuges of—well—snowflakes. One of the most determined combatants in this theater is the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), whose mission is “to defend and sustain the individual rights of all Americans to free speech and free thought.” FIRE’s well-stocked armament includes advocacy, litigation, and analyses of the speech codes of hundreds of U.S. colleges and universities.


FIRE was founded in 1999 by a university professor and a civil liberties attorney. It was originally named the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, whose focus was to resist a wave of free speech restrictions that its founders perceived was sweeping across the nation’s higher education institutions. In 2022, it broadened its range to battle free speech threats beyond campuses and announced new initiatives for the broad public sphere, as well as its new name.

FIRE identifies as nonpartisan, but its critics point out that it is heavily supported by several prominent right-wing entities. Nonprofits typically name their principal supporters, but FIRE is unusually opaque about its funding, and it does not identify individual donors. Its website contains financial statements for the last 7 years and IRS 990 Forms from 2015 to 2021, none of which name individual donors.


FIRE’s principal research project is its Spotlight Data­base, which analyzes and rates the freedom of speech at 486 U.S. colleges and universities. This group includes many prominent private and public institutions, but the only criterion that FIRE states is that they are “the nation’s top colleges and universities.”

FIRE analyzes each school’s publicly available policies and codes relating to speech. (Institutions typically have several separate speech-related policies, in­cluding those for hate speech and harassment.) Each policy is given a rating on a four-point scale:

  • Green—[does] not seriously imperil speech
  • Yellow—restricts a more limited amount of protected expression or, by virtue of vague wording, can too easily be used to restrict protected expression
  • Red—both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech
  • Blue (for private schools only)—holds a certain set of values above a commitment to freedom of speech

The school’s individual policy entries include the policy language on which the rating is based. These individual scores are aggregated into a single overall rating, using the same four-point scale. FIRE’s methodology section does not specifically describe how the ratings are assigned or any measures to ensure that they are applied consistently.

The U.S. Department of Education identifies almost 4,000 U.S. institutions of higher education, from the largest universities to community colleges and training schools. Spotlight covers only about 12% of them. Thus, Spotlight’s sample is small and, more importantly, based on its own vague selection criteria, ideologically skewed. Spotlight’s 486 schools include most of the country’s most prestigious and selective colleges and universities. It’s been frequently noted that this cohort is more left-leaning, more “woke,” than all schools or the U.S. population itself.

In studying a group, there is a significant difference between a comprehensive study that attempts to cover all members and a sample that deals with some small portion. Spotlight is a sample, and one that is methodologically biased by including many schools that—by FIRE’s analysis—violate core U.S. free speech principles. This is not to say that Spotlight’s findings are invalid, but instead to note that you tend to find what you are looking for.


FIRE has several other databases that investigate the free speech environments of schools in its sample, including the following:

  • Due Process Ratings analyzes methods for investigating alleged free speech infringements. There are ratings available for 53 of the largest and most prominent schools.
  • Disinvitations lists incidents in which a proposed speaker at a school event is deterred by protests by members of the school community.
  • Leader Statements tracks speech code statements from a member of the school’s leadership team, taken from school sources or public media.
  • Scholars Under Fire documents incidents in which faculty members are criticized or censured for alleged violations of the school’s speech codes.
  • FIRE Newsdesk offers news on free speech controversies. Its coverage begins in 1999 and is updated regularly. In accordance with FIRE’s long-standing prior focus, most of its articles deal with higher education. However, Newsdesk has recently been covering incidents in other spheres.

In addition to its speech code research, the FIRE website has material relevant to its advocacy, educational, and legal efforts, including the following:

  • A catalog of 865 court cases filed or supported by FIRE, with a summary and relevant documents
  • Materials for advocates, students, and teachers, including guidelines, model statements and speech codes, podcasts, and curricula
  • Primers on free speech and other First Amendment rights  


FIRE’s recent decision to extend its work beyond higher education is a major change for the organization. The $75 million initiative will focus on three main areas of programming: litigation, public education, and research. This work is already underway; among many other moves, FIRE recently:

  • Launched a billboard campaign in Keller, Texas, against a ban on school books that deal with gender fluidity.
  • Filed a federal lawsuit against the mayor of Eastpointe, Michigan, for blocking constituents’ comments at a city council meeting.
  • Issued a formal statement against calls for government actions in favor of social media censorship.

Is FIRE an instrument of wealthy right-wing interests or the group that supports free access to books on gender fluidity? The answer is somewhere in between, but it’s impossible to say just where. Our culture wars have become so embittered that opposing sides may not grant any legitimacy to the motives or actions of the other. FIRE is avowedly partisan in its support for unfettered free speech, and most of us would agree with that—at least in principle. But is every statement or action from FIRE beyond reproach? You’ll have to answer that one yourself.

Mick O'LearyMick O’Leary has been reviewing databases and websites for Information Today since 1987. Send your comments about this article to or tweet us (@ITINewsBreaks)