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After 15 years of writing policy papers and serving as experts in the media, The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a small branch of the vast-spanning Koch billionaire-funded network, has emerged from the shadows to mount an aggressive lawsuit campaign targeting campus policies and forcing universities to pay for what they deem “First Amendment” offenses.

The result of the onslaught of lawsuits brought by FIRE will likely be sweeping changes in the way speech is carried out in day to day campus life — based on policies penned from “libertarian” interpretations of speech, often written by the right-wing group themselves.

The group itself is not limiting itself to speech policies, however, as we previously reported. FIRE has been working with students accused of sex crimes on campus and plans to litigate on their behalf.

The implications and the fast-moving nature of the flurry of lawsuits is a bit terrifying. The funding behind them seems to have come out of nowhere. But rest assured, it’s a well-orchestrated onslaught. There’s been very little coverage so far of what’s happening. Vulnerable universities and colleges are folding to pressure – settling these cases out of court and permanently rewriting their school’s policies – for better or worse.

 

The Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project

In June, 2013,  FIRE put out a press release announcing what it termed the “Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project.”

According to a press release published at the right-leaning Accuracy in Academia project,  the project goal was “to eliminate unconstitutional speech codes at universities by targeting First Amendment violations and initiating lawsuits.”  Libertarian attorney Robert Corn-Revere was to serve as the leading counsel to students and faculty members “participating” in the project — i.e. bringing lawsuits against the universities who they believed were running afoul of the First Amendment.

“For 15 years, FIRE has fought for free speech on campus using public awareness as our main weapon, but more is needed,” said FIRE President Greg Lukianoff, “We have already coordinated two lawsuits in the past nine months, and this morning we brought four more.”

The lawsuits are quick-hitting complaints on basic first Amendment issues — incidents that could probably have been resolved without suing and robbing the schools of much-needed funds. But that’s that’s not the purpose of the lawsuits. They’re basically a method of suing schools into submission.

The litigation itself was designed to be settled out of court for small lump sums and force the schools to revise their policies to adhere to FIRE’s interpretation of the First Amendment, the press release explained:

“For example, the lawsuit against Modesto Junior College in California was filed after a security guard and a staffer told a student that he couldn’t pass out copies of the Constitution on Constitution Day 2013. The College settled the lawsuit for $50,000 and made policy revisions.”

On September 17, 2014 — Constitution Day — FIRE announced they had mailed out 300 letters threatening schools with legal action if they did not immediately amend their policies:

“In a national certified mailing sent today, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) warns the leaders of more than 300 of our nation’s largest and most prestigious public colleges and universities that they risk First Amendment lawsuits by continuing to maintain speech codes that violate student and faculty rights. The letters are being mailed from the main post office near Independence Hall in Philadelphia today to mark the 227th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution.”

“Public colleges and universities have no excuse for violating basic First Amendment rights by maintaining unconstitutional speech codes,” said Azhar Majeed, Director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Education Program, in press release announcing the letter campaign:

“But they need not risk the possibility of an embarrassing federal lawsuit. They can easily rectify these policies by working cooperatively with FIRE, as the University of Florida and Plymouth State University have done recently.”

A sample letter provided on the FIRE website spans six long-form pages and details the lawsuit wins that FIRE has scored in 2014.

It bears the ominous threat: “More such lawsuits will follow until public colleges and universities finally understand that complying with the First Amendment is not optional.”

You can read the whole thing below…

Stand Up for Speech Certified Mailing FIRE

Where did this aggressive lawsuit effort come from? Who is funding it?

FIRE is a member of the vast right-wing network funded by the Koch brothers’ circle of like-minded one-percenters.

Koch family foundations have written checks as high as $250,000 for general operating costs for FIRE, according to Sourcewatch. The John William Pope Foundation, also part of the vast Koch donor network, donates to the tune of $150,000 regularly.

One donor in particular may explain the timing of the current campaign and the aggressive efforts behind expansion – the conservative-leaning Sarah Scaife Foundation. Up until July, the late Richard Mellon Scaife administered the grants to his favorite right wing organizations, including such conservative strongholds as the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), The Heritage Foundation, and the Cato Institute. In 2013, Scaife wrote a check for $150,000 to FIRE. In 2012 and 2011, he donated similar amounts, according to tax documents posted on the foundation’s website.

Scaife, a billionaire with a passion for advancing the conservative agenda, passed away on July 4, 2014 and left nearly all of his $1.3 billion fortune to his network of foundations. As a result, the Sarah Scaife Foundation is set to have assets of about $800 million in spending power after absorbing the smaller, similarly focused Carthage Foundation.

Michael W. Gleba, president and acting chairman of the Sarah Scaife Foundation and Carthage Foundation, now oversees the funds. Deeply embedded in the seat of power within conservative policy-making infrastructure, Gleba also serves on the board of the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, another think tank aimed at dismantling what they see as the “liberal agenda” within colleges and universities.

Prior to the lawsuit project, The Alliance Defense Fund was the go-to Koch-related group that took right-wing, campus-based “free speech” lawsuits to court. Since early 2014, they have veered away from school-centered speech and have begun to focus on corporate speech after becoming heavily involved in the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court case.

It appears, for all intensive purposes, that FIRE has stepped up to fill this void.

We will continue to keep you updated on the organization’s movements.