3 in 4 Campaigns Targeting Faculty Expression Result in Punishment (but FIRE’s New Legal Defense Fund Can Help)


For more than 20 years, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has defended collegiate scholars from attacks by would-be censors who dislike what they say or discover in the course of their research, teaching, or personal expression. Distressingly, a new report from FIRE shows the scope of this task finding that efforts at such censorship are frequently successful and increasingly common.

The report—“Scholars Under Fire”— documents attempts to penalize scholars for speech and expression that, although often controversial, is protected by their First Amendment and academic freedom rights. FIRE found that such incidents have quadrupled since 2015 and reached a new record in 2020 at 113 incidents, with 2021 on track to match or exceed 2020’s tally. Making matters worse, an alarming 74% of scholars receive some sort of punishment from their schools when they’re targeted by campaigns against their constitutionally protected speech. This problem spans ideologies, with most campaigns in the database (62%) coming from the political “left” of the scholar and 34% coming from the scholar’s “right.”

These findings demonstrate increased risks to faculty expression, but FIRE has added a new resource for fighting back. On the same day we released our report, FIRE also officially launched the Faculty Legal Defense Fund (FLDF), which will provide free legal assistance to faculty at public colleges and universities across the country. The fund provides no-cost legal help by connecting faculty with experienced counsel from FLDF’s network of attorneys around the country and using FIRE’s resources as an experienced defender of campus rights to leverage faculty members’ ability to defend their rights.

The fund recently closed its first case, helping University of Illinois Chicago law professor Jason Kilborn defend his rights after he was suspended for posing a hypothetical question in a December 2020 law school exam using redacted references to two slurs. After reaching a successful resolution that allowed him to return to the classroom, Kilborn said of his experience, “FIRE gave me the comfort of public support and solidarity; the FLDF gave me the silver bullet of real legal action. Having a gladiator standing beside me and shaking his sword—that alone is enormously powerful.” Faculty members at public institutions should contact FIRE if they face punishment for their expression by submitting a case to the FLDF or calling its 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533).

The Scholars Under Fire report and our new defense fund are two of the many new tools and resources we hope to roll out this year to burnish our faculty outreach and defense efforts. If you’re a faculty member and want to stay on top of our work defending your rights, consider signing up for our Faculty Network.

Published in Education
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