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Americans need to be on FIRE for free speech

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There’s a reason I call freedom of speech “the eternally radical idea.” 

After all, what do you call an idea that has a clear track record of promoting innovation, human flourishing, prosperity, and progress — but is nonetheless rejected by partisans and authoritarians in every generation throughout history?  

Many of us are lucky enough to have grown up in a time in which its value was taken for granted, but free speech has historically often been despised by those in power. Throughout millennia, the authorities — state and religious alike — have handled dissenters through ostracization or banishment. At other times, it’s been arrest, torture, beheading, burning at the stake, crucifixion or drinking hemlock. 


The fact is that free speech will always be opposed by the forces of conformity and the will of those with authority, because human beings are natural-born censors. It is simply too easy and too tempting to punish speech we disagree with and dislike, and to silence those who hold views contrary to our own. 

That’s why freedom of speech, “the eternally radical idea.” is so important. And it’s the reason my organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), exists.

For 25 years, FIRE has defended the free speech rights of all Americans, regardless of their identity or the content of their speech. Since 1999, we’ve played by one rule: If it’s protected, we’ll defend it. No apologies. No throat-clearing. 

We have fought tirelessly against restrictions on free expression and academic freedom, as well as speech codes on college campuses that rely on double standards for their existence. You may not know our name, but you know our cases.  

We defended a student employee found responsible for racial harassment because he was seen reading “Notre Dame vs. the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan” during work breaks. 

We defended Erika and Nicholas Christakis at Yale when a student mob called for their resignations after Erika argued that students should be allowed to decide for themselves what Halloween costumes they can wear.  

We sounded the alarm on political litmus tests on campus 17 years ago, and we sued to stop California schools from using DEI regulations as political litmus tests three months ago. We filed — and won — a lawsuit against Florida’s Stop WOKE Act for restricting academic freedom.  

Defending free speech has gotten harder as campuses have come up with new justifications for curtailing speech. Regulating “hate speech,” for instance, is often sold as an effort to protect minority groups and prevent harassment. But these regulations neither protect minority groups nor prevent harassment.  

FIRE’s case archives are full of examples showing how harassment charges are regularly used to censor all kinds of speech — from punishing a student group at Long Island University critical of trans issues to investigating pro-choice students at American University.  

Norman Rockwell's Freedom of Speech

A principled defense of all speech — even speech we find personally despicable or disgusting — is the line we must hold to prevent this kind of abuse of authority. 

FIRE started out focusing only on campus free speech, and our founders thought that we’d be able to pack things up in about 10 years. Not only were we wrong about that, we also realized that free speech needs protecting off campus too. That’s why, in 2022, FIRE expanded its mission to focus on defending free expression and railing against censorship everywhere. 

Our goal was to build a movement of 1 million free speech defenders within three years — and in only 18 months we’re already more than 900,000 strong, so we need to aim even bigger. 

Since our expansion, we have defended the free speech rights of individuals like the middle-schooler who was suspended for allegedly wearing “blackface” to a football game (it was actually football eye-black), and a father in Uvalde, Texas who was banned from school board meetings for criticizing the school district police’s handling of the horrifying shootings there in 2022.  

We have also blown the whistle on PayPal for proposing a policy change that would have permitted the service to “fine” users $2,500 — that is, take money out of your account — for speech that PayPal unilaterally felt was “harmful” or “misinformation” (among other things). And we called out the censorial actions of Penguin Random House for bowdlerizing the works of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” author Roald Dahl. 

I have long joked that censorship is like taking Xanax for Syphilis. You’re going to think you feel better, but under the surface the disease will only get worse. Censorship simply does not work. 

Campuses, in particular, have been trying it for decades now, and we know the result: a climate of chilled speech, cancel culture, and an abdication of the most fundamental principle undergirding American society.  

This holds just as true off campus. Without freedom of speech, America as we know it ceases to exist.  

You and I cannot reap the benefits of the First Amendment in a culture where citizens are legally able to speak freely but few of them do. As Judge Learned Hand put it in 1944, “Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it.” 

America thrives on norms that see value in curiosity, dissent, devil’s advocacy, thought experimentation, and talking across lines of difference. The soul of our country lies in the instinct to respond to speech we disfavor with more speech rather than censorship or cancelation. 


Those norms are in peril. That’s why it is time to act. 

We’re building a movement to protect the eternally radical idea. We’re closing in on our initial goal of 1 million, but as the challenges ahead of us multiply, so must our numbers.  

Many of us are lucky enough to have grown up in a time in which its value was taken for granted, but free speech has historically often been despised by those in power.

If you’re already part of this movement, thank you. If you’re not, please consider becoming a card-carrying member or signing up for our mailing list. Not only will you join America’s Twenty-First Century movement for free speech, but we’ll keep you informed on the latest free speech news, share calls to action, and update you on the lawsuits we bring to defend this vital American principle. 

Those calls to action are where we need you most. Cancel culture begins with mobs targeting high school students wearing “Let’s Go Brandon” sweatshirts, someone calling for an investigation into a hospital’s low patient safety rating or arresting an army veteran for holding up a sign that says “God Bless the Homeless Vets” — but it ends with you.  

FIRE’s guiding vision is nothing less than an America in which people overwhelmingly believe in the right of others to freely express views different from their own, and demand their laws, institutions, and society to embody this belief. If we don’t actively support the values of free expression, open inquiry, academic freedom, and viewpoint diversity in as principled and nonpartisan a way as we can muster, no law will save them. 

Free speech makes free people, and free people must defend free speech. Will you answer the call? 


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