Review Letter Contained Factual Falsities

Chip Williams

To the Editors:

The April 5 issue of the Review featured a letter by Owen Henry, “Student Challenges Free Speech Organization,” that contained a variety of non-truths (I’m assuming they weren’t deliberate lies) concerning the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Henry writes, “The types of free speech cases FIRE promotes are not the kind that Oberlin students are regularly involved in; they have nothing to do with speaking out against corporate greed or promoting social justice.” I have to admit that I’m unaware of any cases in which Oberlin College has attempted to prevent students from “speaking out against corporate greed or promoting social justice,” but perhaps Henry simply meant that FIRE is not interested in defending the right to the kind of expression that Oberlin students regularly engage in. If that’s what he was driving at, he is simply wrong. In his own response to Henry [The Oberlin Review, April 5, “OC Republicans and Libertarians Respond to Letter”], James Kuntz mentions several cases FIRE has taken up in which they have protected the rights of liberal speakers. Additionally, one of the cases most recently highlighted on FIRE’s front page involves the censorship of faculty art critical of the celebration of the South’s Confederate heritage at Gainesville State College in Georgia.

Henry goes on to say that, although FIRE does promote free speech, “they do so as part of what has been called the intellectual diversity movement, whose aim is to attack what they see as a liberal bias on college campuses nationwide.” This claim seems to be plucked from’s page on FIRE, where it is asserted without citation. The “intellectual diversity” movement seems primarily concerned with the disproportionately small number of conservative professors working in American universities — an imbalance that doesn’t seem too hard to explain, given, to name one reason among many, the contempt with which Republicans dismiss the overwhelming evidence for biological evolution. The most prominent advocate of the movement is conservative activist David Horowitz, whose proposed Academic Bill of Rights strikes me as poorly thought out and potentially disastrous if implemented, but that’s another letter.

While some members of FIRE have no doubt used the phrase “intellectual diversity” in their speaking and writing, I see no evidence that the organization is part of the aforementioned movement. Furthermore, it would be inconsistent with FIRE’s clearly articulated principles to support any attempt to enforce a particular distribution of political views in university faculties.
Finally, Henry writes, “Although there aren’t many conservative universities, none of them are present on FIRE’s list of targets; they have not even been rated in their much-vaunted Spotlight system, which is purported to be a ‘comprehensive’ list. When searching for some of the most blatantly conservative institutions, such as Liberty University, it becomes clear that these have not even been entered into FIRE’s database as search parameters, perhaps indicating that these places are not even on its radar.”

I’m not sure how useful a Liberty University search parameter would be to anyone, but the reason it doesn’t appear in FIRE’s search results is simple. Private universities are free to restrict the speech of students so long as they make it clear upfront that enrolling students should not expect freedom of expression. Universities such as Liberty and Brigham Young make it abundantly clear to applicants that freedom of speech is trumped by ideological considerations. On the other hand, it is both morally and legally illegitimate for private institutions such as Oberlin, which advertises its commitment to free expression on its websites and in its admissions literature, to restrict student speech. There are conservative universities that advertise such commitments, and FIRE has rated them, giving Notre Dame, for example, a red-light rating (which is bad).

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Henry’s letter is the number of claims he made that could have been addressed had he simply investigated FIRE’s website (beyond seeking to confirm his Liberty University hypothesis), or bothered to show up for FIRE President Greg Lukianoff’s talk in West Lecture Hall on March 24. It seems that to achieve at least one of those things before hurling accusations at a nonprofit student rights organization would have required very little effort and only a modicum of intellectual honesty.

–Chip Williams