Taking aim at schools ‘with a huge endowment and an army of lawyers’
A new group that seeks to defend students’ speech rights is joining the work of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and Alliance Defending Freedom.
Unlike those well-funded nonprofits, Speech First uses a membership model to create buy-in for students who have to contend with restrictive speech codes, so-called free speech zones, bias response teams, and both officially mandated disinvitations and heckler’s vetoes against their invited speakers.
For a one-time $5 fee, “you can stand with us to defend the First Amendment, ensuring that students will be supported every step of the way: on campus, in the media, and in court,” the group says on its membership page.
Also unlike its older peers, Speech First is based in Washington, D.C., which is home to a vibrant First Amendment legal community. (FIRE often works with D.C.’s Robert Corn-Revere, well-known for representing media companies in First Amendment cases.)
Speech First is led by Nicole Neily, a former ACLU and Greek-life student activist who briefly led the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. That group runs Watchdog.org, which reports on waste and fraud in state and local government, including public universities.
New strategic litigation group @Speech_First launching with a great mission: to support students who seek to protect their rights to free speech on campus. https://t.co/Yp3hm6JUoS @nickineily @adamjwhitedc @jamil_n_jaffer
— James Valvo (@JamesValvo) March 1, 2018
Her LinkedIn page says she “restructured” the center and created the “conditions needed for a smooth transition to new ownership” by boosting fundraising during election years, which are “traditionally lean for 501(c)3 organizations” such as Franklin.
Neily remains a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum, where she briefly served as executive director several years ago.
The board includes George Mason University professor Jamil Jaffer, a former Justice Department and White House lawyer in the George W. Bush administration. (He’s not to be confused with Jameel Jaffer, a former ACLU lawyer who currently leads the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia.)
According to its FAQs, Speech First will “encompass all forms of speech in expression, association, and the press on campus,” with no apparent distinction between public and private institutions. It will defend speech across the political spectrum for both speakers and listeners.
On the crucial question of litigation, it will decide which schools to sue by “listening to our members and carefully monitoring schools,” with particular attention to preemptive censorship of students.
Neily said in a statement when the organization launched Wednesday that Speech First is intended to take on “David versus Goliath” situations where a suppressed student faces “a school with a huge endowment and an army of lawyers.”
— Nicki Neily (@nickineily) February 28, 2018
Neily told Robby Soave at Reason that the membership model is designed to “capitalize on the real groundswell of support behind free speech from all walks of life—not just students, but also parents, alumni, and concerned citizens.” It will also send the fear of God into schools that “there’s an army that is passionate about defending speech rights.”
IMAGE: Speech First website