PHILADELPHIA — An organization inspired by a campus fight over whether “water buffalo” was a racist slur has become the go-to group for college students and professors of all stripes who believe their rights to free speech have been violated.
Since its founding in 1999, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has battled pro bono for evangelicals and atheists, animal-rights activists and campus conservatives, and others who say they have been silenced by school administrators because of their points of view.
With 11 employees in Philadelphia and a network of dozens of volunteer attorneys nationwide, the organization has grown from a group that heard and publicized student complaints to a resource for college communities.
“We have a database on speech codes, we have books, we have multiple programs designed to transform the culture of education into one that respects free speech for everybody,” said the foundation’s president, David French.
The foundation’s most high-profile battles have been against campus speech codes, which came about as a result of an ideological shift that it was “OK to be intolerant of intolerance,” French said.
On its Web site the foundation rates speech codes of about 400 schools, lists codes of concern, and indicates whether any related complaints have been lodged. Examples of outlawed behavior in campus codes have included “sexually suggestive staring,” “inappropriately directed laughter,” or saying anything — intentionally or unintentionally — that could embarrass someone else.
Doesn’t sound much like college.
“This idea came to be that free speech had to be suppressed for the sake of the larger social interest,” French said. “Speech codes come from that notion.”
The co-founders of the foundation, best known by its acronym, FIRE, are Alan Charles Kors, a conservative professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, and Harvey A. Silverglate, a civil liberties attorney in Boston.
The two met as students at Princeton in the 1960s. Their organization took shape, however, as the result of an incident at Penn in 1993 that became known as “the water buffalo case.”
During the incident, a white student yelled from his dormitory window to a group of black women who were making noise and interrupting his studying: “Shut up, you water buffalo. If you’re looking for a party, there’s a zoo a mile from here.”
The women charged the Penn freshman, Eden Jacobowitz, with racial harassment under the university’s hate-speech policy. Jacobowitz insisted his comment was not racist and that the phrase “water buffalo” was a rough translation of a Hebrew word for “fool.”
The women later dropped the charges, saying they couldn’t get a fair hearing due to the national attention, and Jacobowitz settled his lawsuit against the university with Penn admitting no wrongdoing.
The case sparked national debate on political correctness on campus and prompted Penn to change its student behavior policies. It also led Kors and Silverglate to write the 1998 book The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses, and to establish FIRE a year later.
Kors said the water buffalo incident prompted outrage from liberals and conservatives, but it was treated as an aberration — when in reality many universities espoused the same codes of conduct and continue to do so.
“It came to a point that we felt a little helpless,” University of Miami student Andrea M. Kiser, 22, said of a battle she and several others waged to get university approval for their conservative student organization.
The members of Advocates for Conservative Thought were told that there already was another campus group like theirs: the College Republicans. Kiser and her colleagues countered, with no success, that they were not looking to engage in partisan political activities (not all its members were Republicans) but to discuss conservative philosophy and ideas.
“Here we were — four girls, underclassmen — what power do we have?” Kiser said. They contacted the foundation, which publicized their case, and in a May 2003 turnaround, the organization won school recognition.
Advocates for Conservative Thought now has about 25 members, Kiser said.
“Without FIRE, we wouldn’t really have had any other options,” she said. “They empower students to get the rights that they deserve.”
In May, the foundation won its case on behalf of a student at Seminole Community College in Florida who was barred from distributing pamphlets outside an on-campus cafe on cruel practices in slaughterhouses.
Other student groups were permitted to set up tables in the high-traffic spot, but Eliana Campos said she was permitted only to disseminate the information from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in a “free-speech zone that was in an out-of-the-way spot where pretty much no one ever goes.”
After about two months of correspondence with the foundation, the college allowed Campos to distribute the PETA pamphlets near the cafe and said it would revise its policy on free-speech zones.
Officials at the University of Miami and Seminole Community College did not respond to calls seeking comment.
“It’s good to know that people like FIRE are there to stand up for people’s free-speech rights regardless of what their views are,” said PETA college campaign coordinator Freeman Wicklund. “They’re experts in First Amendment issues, and they’re highly motivated, which makes them an incredible asset to any activist group.”
The foundation has successfully defended students, professors and student newspapers in nearly 100 cases in schools public and private, small and large, urban and rural, French said. Still, the number of complaints continues to increase.
“The best way out of this is (following) FIRE’s motto,” Kors said. “We say, ‘Sunlight is the best disinfectant.’ ”