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Group Fights for Free Speech on Campuses

When part-time college student Jihad Daniel (search) received a campuswide e-mail invitation to see a movie about lesbians, he balked.

"These are perversions," he replied to the e-mail's sender, asking that he no longer be sent information about "Connie and Sally" or "Adam and Steve."

The next thing he knew, the 68-year-old student at William Paterson University (search) in Wayne, N.J., was accused of violating the state school's anti-discrimination policy.

A letter of reprimand followed in June, describing his brief comments to the sender — the head of the women's studies program — as "derogatory or demeaning."

He took his case to a Philadelphia organization that has become the go-to group for college students and professors of all stripes who believe their rights to free speech (search) have been violated.

Since 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 administrations because of their points of view.

The group filed a complaint with the university saying Daniel's rights to free speech and due process had been violated. The New Jersey attorney general sided with the school, but the foundation said it will fight to have the reprimand lifted.

With 11 employees in Philadelphia and a network of dozens of volunteer attorneys nationwide, the foundation has grown from an organization that publicized student complaints to a resource for college communities.

Foundation president David French said the group's goal is to "transform the culture of education into one that respects free speech for everybody."

He said the foundation has successfully defended students, professors and student newspapers in nearly 100 cases — at schools public and private, small and large, urban and rural.

Its most high-profile battles have been against campus speech codes.

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. Outlawed behavior has included "sexually suggestive staring," "inappropriately directed laughter," or saying anything — intentionally or unintentionally — that could embarrass someone else.

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.

They met as students at Princeton in the 1960s. Their organization took shape 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 student, 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 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 establish FIRE a year later.

In May, the foundation won a case on behalf of a student at Seminole Community College in Florida who was banned from distributing pamphlets near a cafe about cruel practices in slaughterhouses. Other student groups were permitted to set up tables in the high-traffic spot.

After months of correspondence with the foundation, the college relented and said it would revise its policy on free speech zones. Officials at the school 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 Freeman Wicklund, a college campaign coordinator for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.