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Saving the ‘Culture of Free Speech’


In the late 1970s, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) famously—and controversially—defended the right of neo-Nazis to march through the Chicago suburb of Skokie, Illinois, which was home to many Holocaust survivors. It was a defining moment for the group and for the idea that free speech, no matter how vile, must be guaranteed to everyone.

But over the past 20 years—and especially over the past few years—the ACLU has seemingly retreated from its unwavering defense of free speech in favor of supporting progressive candidates and causes. It ran ads supporting Stacey Abrams in her gubernatorial campaign in Georgia, for instance. It’s called for the forgiveness of $50,000 in student loan debt. It even ghostwrote and placed the Washington Post op-ed about domestic violence that led to Amber Heard losing a defamation case against Johnny Depp.

Its lack of focus on its traditional mission of defending free speech has gotten to a point where its former executive director, who led the group during the Skokie controversy, has become one of its biggest critics. “If the Skokie case happened again,” Ira Glasser told me in 2020, “would the ACLU take it? I don’t know.”

But if the ACLU is retreating, another free speech group is expanding to fill the void left behind. Founded in 1999 to combat speech codes on college campuses, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education—FIRE—has announced a new name and an expanded mission of defending free speech off-campus as well as on. 

The new name is the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression and the group has announced “a three-year, $75 million litigation, opinion research and public education campaign aimed at boosting and solidifying support for free-speech values.” FIRE’s longtime president is Greg Lukianoff, the co-author of the bestselling book The Coddling of the American Mind, and, as it happens, a former employee of the ACLU—a group for which he has lots of praise. 

In today’s episode, he tells me about why he’s concerned that support for what he calls the “culture of free speech”—broad-based belief in the value of tolerance and civil disagreement—has been declining for the better part of a decade and how FIRE is going to work to turn that around.

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