FIRE's Greg Lukianoff On The Fight For Free Speech
Stepping into the gap left behind by ex-liberals
Hello everyone! The Transom Book Club had to skip a week last week because I got a new job and have a new documentary incoming, but will resume tomorrow at 8 P.M., when we’ll be discussing David Mamet’s Recessional: The Death of Free Speech and the Cost of a Free Lunch. Watch for the Zoom link!
First piece at The Spectator dropped today, on a related topic: FIRE’s rebranding, expansion, and the effort to battle for free speech beyond the kangaroo courts of the campus craziness. Please read and share!
For the anti-free-speech left, the most dangerous man in America today is Greg Lukianoff. The president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education for the past 16 years, the free-speech attorney has now decided to guide the organization, previously focused on free-speech battles within academia, into the broader territory of free-speech battles across the nation. FIRE has been rebranded as the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, and Lukianoff intends to take it into space once occupied by free-speech stalwarts like the ACLU. He has a massive new investment from supporters to the tune of $75 million.
Lukianoff is part of a generation of new Gen X leaders for the conservative movement in America, though he thinks of himself less as a conservative and more as a classical liberal. The arrival of this new broadened agenda is something long planned but now accelerated.
“People have been approaching and asking since day one, the whole time we faced pressure to expand beyond campus,” Lukianoff said in an exclusive interview with The Spectator. “We were thinking about expanding in 2024, but 2020 was such a bad year for freedom of speech, it was unlike anything I’d ever seen.”
This degradation of free speech in America, thanks to the pandemic and the increasing power of bureaucratic actors, led FIRE to adopt an approach that no longer pretends the anti-speech efforts of the college kangaroo court system are confined to the campus.
“There should be a thumb on the scale on not firing people over a political view or ruining their lives over a drunken tweet,” Lukianoff said, while admitting: “The good news is that we’ve been dealing with an extra-constitutional situation on campus for a long time, but taking on the administrative state is going to be a real challenge.”
The tension FIRE will need to navigate is that both the left and right seem inclined in recent years to deploy the power of government to effect their ends — including eradicating protections against the meddling of bureaucrats in order to achieve a government-mandated arrangement of balance.
“We don’t want the heavy hand of government coming in,” Lukianoff said. “What we’d like to do is encourage a culture where we get back to a point where firing someone for a political view is a drastic option. The state of free speech law is pretty good — B+ — but culturally, we are not where we need to be.”
FIRE’s efforts will be focused on communication and rebuilding the value of free speech as central and bipartisan. Lukianoff wants to address issues like qualified immunity and push back against the devaluation of free speech by online social media entities in creative ways: “To remind people of the old idioms, and good small-d democratic values.”
Yet much of this effort may be a last stand for pluralism at a moment when it seems cast aside by right and left. “If you’re deciding you’re going to fire people for saying heterodox or partisan things, you’re going to hurt yourself, and deny yourself people with skill,” Lukianoff said. Citing the situation with Georgetown professor Ilya Shapiro, he commented, “That was an insane case but it was not at all atypical… When everyone is their Twitter avatar 24 hours a day, it’s not good. We are all on stage all the time, when ‘The Purifiers’ will go after you.”
FIRE is looking for help within this space, not just in terms of donor support, but talent and staff from those who are dedicated to the cause of free speech, and plaintiffs who will help them make the case within court systems and battles worth fighting within HR departments and corporate America. Not every battle will be one in which they can engage, Lukianoff warns, but they will choose to weigh in as much as possible on the side of those fighting for their right to speak freely.
“Major parts of the left don’t understand that without free speech, the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, the gay rights movement, would all be a bird without wings,” Lukianoff said. He intends to remind them.