From my first day at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), my summer, and perhaps even my post-graduation plans, changed for the better. FIRE, a nonprofit, nonpartisan, legal organization, advocates on behalf of college students and faculty around the country. Their mission is incredibly simple: “to defend and sustain individual rights at America’s colleges and universities.” To execute these goals FIRE engages in public advocacy campaigns at universities. Students submit cases of school misbehavior or unconstitutional restrictions. FIRE advises the school about their policies, carries out wide-ranging media campaigns against the school, and, in cases where schools fail to relent to public pressure, will initiate or coordinate legal action against the organization.
As an intern, I had a role in each of these facets. Because it is a small organization (a permanent staff of 30 in two offices – Philadelphia and DC), I was able to quickly get involved in projects central to FIRE’s mission. My first assignments involved reaching out to students and student organizations at schools across the country. However, my role quickly transitioned to more research. I was personally responsible for researching the issue of content warnings and the college environment. So called “trigger warnings” are an object of concern for FIRE because of their chilling effect on speech. The President of FIRE, Greg Lukianoff, used my research extensively at a symposium in Turkey in September 2014 and in his newest book Freedom From Speech. I was also heavily involved in research for our litigation project, which launched in July 2014. Stand Up for Speech, a project almost 10 years in the making, was announced at a press conference on July 1. That day, we simultaneously filed lawsuits against four colleges for violations of students’ free speech rights, with the intent of filing more as cases are won and verdicts announced.
These assignments and duties gave me an intricate look at the world of legal nonprofits and the effect of civil liberties groups in our society. While we might be familiar with the work of large law firms or “big-name” attorneys, lawyers at these smaller organizations are more concerned with the outcomes of their work and the rules it sets than they are the money involved. They are concerned about the good they can do for one individual, as opposed to the financial lucrativeness for themselves. At the end of summer, I assisted in running a conference for college students around the country. We brought together students concerned about the status of rights on college campuses. Teaching students about rights and engaging in conversations about what is constitutionally protected was one of the highlights of this experience.
FIRE, aside from engaging in public legal work, also emphasizes education. This is true for both the public and the FIRE staff. Throughout the summer, I had the immense pleasure of hearing from luminaries in the civil liberties world, including former ACLU President Nadine Strossen, New York Civil Rights Coalition President Michael Meyers, and former Department of Justice Legislative Counsel Muriel Morisey. I still keep in contact with many of them.
Perhaps the most lasting impact of my work at FIRE was not the specifics of my research or the contacts I have made, but the lessons I learned about public service in legal profession. This summer, I had the opportunity to work with some of the smartest people I have ever met, individuals across the political spectrum. I had the chance to engage with people whose lives are devoted to maintaining and strengthening public knowledge and exercise of our basic freedoms. They exemplify public service and have forced me to reevaluate my post-graduation, post-law school plans. While we all see and idolize the big names, the individuals in the trenches truly do extraordinary public service work.
Without the Wellman Hill grant, and Ms. Hill’s incredible generosity, these experiences would have been impossible. Leaving aside the information and direction for my own future, I am thrilled that I was able to spend a summer contributing to the public good in such an important way. In democracy, we fail if we forget the principles on which we stand, and it is up to the public to keep those same principles alive. I am extremely grateful to have been able to contribute to that effort.