For about two weeks now I've been trying to get a reaction from FIRE to the students who were threatened with suspension at Notre Dame University for attempting to put a wreath around a gay soldier's memorial. I remember some students associated with FIRE at my college - they were always conservative, always complaining that they didn't have the right to freedom of speech that other students had, never actually talking about any conservative position in any of the many forums that our campus had, and stretching the truth or lying about instances where their freedom of speech had been violated (they were situations, as Robin Lakoff said in The Language War, that were rather uneventful once someone actually investigated them). They, of course, would pull the oppression card every time someone would respond to something they said. That was my introduction to the group.
Needless to say, I didn't have a very high opinion of them.
The national advocacy group says it's all about promoting freedom of speech at colleges and universities. From their mission statement:
The mission of FIRE is to defend and sustain individual rights at America's colleges and universities. These rights include freedom of speech, legal equality, due process, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience--the essential qualities of individual liberty and dignity. FIRE's core mission is to protect the unprotected and to educate the public and communities of concerned Americans about the threats to these rights on our campuses and about the means to preserve them.
They are very concerned
with students never hearing anything that might say that the acceptance of GLBT-folk is good or having to let us into their clubs. For example, they released a statement
about an RA who was forced to hear that some churches don't accept gays - because being homophobic means that you have the right to believe that homophobia doesn't exist and being accepting of queer people isn't essential to a school employee who may in fact have to deal with queer people.
Anyway, a couple of months ago, while doing research for a publishing company, I came across an interview with the founders of FIRE (sorry, can't link to it because it was on Lexis-Nexis and I don't have access to that from this computer) where they were lamenting how they've been labeled a conservative group. Those of you familiar with the tricks wingers use to gain rhetorical power know that conservatives (even Bill O'Reilly!) often say that they're centrist or independent to move the center with them to the right. Well, it annoyed me, but I moved on with my life. (And I should point out that of the thousands of cases that they've taken or released statements about, there are a few that have been pro-gay or liberal, including a couple about the historically Black Hampton University.)
So when I learned about the Soulforce Equality Riders' friends were threatened with suspension just for supporting a gay soldier, well, I though, this is just the kind of case that FIRE would be interested in. Here you have two students who were peaceably protesting and their academic fates are being put in jeopardy. Releasing a statement supporting them couldn't get much more "defend and sustain individual rights at America's colleges and universities" than that.
Well, was I wrong. I couldn't find anything on their site about it, so I emailed them a few times and tried calling. (I included my first email below.) No one responded to my emails and I didn't get to talk to anyone on the phone. Now, I'll be the first to admit that I don't know exactly what techniques to use when contacting a large organization other than the phone number listed on their website or the email address they show as their main contact. But, well, if there's something else that I should be doing, please tell me.
So here's their profile of Notre Dame. They label it as a "red light" institution, apparently because it bans sexual harassment or discriminatory harassment. They also say that there hasn't been any media coverage or coverage in their magazine about civil liberty violations at Notre Dame.
So that's it for FIRE. In my book, they really can't say that they're about protecting freedom of speech or civil liberties, just that they're a conservative advocacy group. That would be far more honest of them.
If this post seems a little biased against FIRE, well, let's just say that they couldn't be reached for comment at the time of posting.
Here's my first email:
Dear sir or madam,
I am writing because I would like to know what FIRE's response will be to the suspension of several student demonstrators at Notre Dame University this past Friday. Two students, along with six non-Notre Dame student members of Soulforce, were stopped by campus police as they attempted to put a wreath on a soldier's memorial and pray. The non-Notre Dame students were arrested and given citations, the Notre Dame students were given "official summons subject to immediate suspension". More can be read from the Soulforce press release here:http://www.soulforce.org/article/1194. If you have already released a press statement that I did not find on your site, I would greatly appreciate being sent a copy by email.
Thank you for your time,