Letter to the Editors: Student Challenges Free Speech Organization

Owen Henry

To the Editors:

In last week’s issue you had a letter lauding the efforts of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education in promoting free speech on college campuses nationwide. Assuredly, the advancement of free speech is something close to, dare I say, every Obie’s heart, even though our own College rulebook imposes extreme limits on it. But at the same time, let us not conflate the sanctity of the concept with FIRE itself. While its work is certainly invaluable in many cases, anyone willing to do a little digging will realize FIRE is not merely dedicated to preserving civil liberties; it also has a decidedly conservative interpretation of what requires defending as “free speech.”

First, let us speak of whom FIRE receives funding from. Although you won’t find it anywhere on its website, FIRE receives funding from the Sarah Scaife Foundation and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. The Scaife Foundation has for years funded a variety of conservative causes, including an organization called Children Require a Caring Community, which pays poor women who are addicted to drugs to undergo sterilization, not to mention the Cato and Hudson Institutes. The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation is in much the same class. According the Media Matters Action Network, a group that tracks conservative groups and their funding sources, Bradley “supports the organizations and individuals that promote the deregulation of business, the rollback of virtually all social welfare programs, and the privatization of government services.” These are the organizations that support FIRE’s mission of bringing free speech to your campus.

Secondly, examine the kinds of cases FIRE takes on. 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. Instead, the list of FIRE cases, which are all available on their website, reads as a litany of defenses against liberal bias in higher education. 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.

Certainly, FIRE intends to promote free speech. But 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. My point is not, as some might infer from this letter, to imply that conservatives are not just as entitled to state their views as anyone else. My personal belief is that Oberlin and college campuses in general could benefit from a greater variety of political opinion. However, what I do object to is the attempt by FIRE and the OC Republicans and Libertarians to cast what is clearly an organization with a political agenda as an organization solely dedicated to defending our right as students to speak freely. FIRE will certainly leap to your defense if the College attempts to censor you for bringing a speaker who is arguably a war criminal to campus. Expect no such assistance, however, if the College attempts to prevent you from protesting said speaker.

Do not be confused or misled by the cloak of the First Amendment. Use the right to free speech that FIRE is supposedly in favor of and question why it seeks to hide its political aims under the mantle of individual rights.

-Owen Henry
College junior