The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) is a Philadelphia-based nonprofit organization that defends free expression rights in the United States, with a special focus on college students and faculty.
Previously known as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the organization was renamed on June 6, 2022, as it broadened its free speech work beyond college campuses.
FIRE says its mission is “to defend and sustain the individual rights of all Americans to free speech and free thought—the most essential qualities of liberty. FIRE educates Americans about the importance of these inalienable rights, promotes a culture of respect for these rights, and provides the means to preserve them.
FIRE was founded in 1999 by Alan Charles Kors, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, and Boston defense attorney Harvey A. Silverglate.
FIRE founded after campus speech code incident
The organization arose from Kors’s stint as a faculty adviser to Penn student Eden Jacobowitz when in 1993 Jacobowitz responded to a loud sorority event outside his dormitory window by calling a group of African American women “water buffalo.” Although the university charged him with racist hate speech under President Sheldon Hackney’s campus speech code, Jacobowitz and Kors argued that “water buffalo” had no history as a racial epithet. The national media reported on the story, and the charges against Jacobowitz were dropped when he agreed to apologize for “rudeness.”
Kors’s experience left him not only opposed to speech codes, but also concerned about improper judicial procedures and unaccountable institutional structures at U.S. universities. In a 1998 book that included a detailed account of the Jacobowitz incident, Kors and Silverglate decried this “shadow university” of disciplinary systems that failed to respect the liberty of students. A year later, they founded FIRE to educate about and advocate for student liberty.
In 2022, FIRE launched a national advertising campaign in support of Free Expression called “Faces of Free Speech,” which included billboards in 15 cities.
FIRE is a tax-exempt nonprofit organization under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.
This article was originally written by Richard J. Meagher and published in 2009. It was updated in 2023.