It's no secret that many elite institutions, including even Harvard, Yale and Princeton that were founded as schools to train preachers of the Christian Gospel, have become places where religious traditions are often not welcome. One alumni recalls a popular refrain: "Hey, hey, what d'ya say, born-again Christians, go away."
"For all the talk about diversity and tolerance, too few students and faculty care when people of faith are given fewer rights than other groups," writes David French, a graduate of Harvard Law School, in the Fire Guide to religious freedom. "Such believers enjoy scant support when they engage in religious practices deemed 'regressive' by their more 'progressive' peers."
The board of editors of the guides include Alan Dershowitz, professor of law at Harvard Law School, and Roger Pilon, vice president for legal affairs at the Cato Institute, the libertarian think tank. FIRE has assembled a network of lawyers who will work pro bono on behalf of students and professors who cannot win in the war of words. These lawyers are guided by the observation of Justice Louis Brandeis: "Sunlight is the best disinfectant."
When FIRE introduced the guides at the National Press Club the other day in Washington, what could have been a tower of Babel made up of radicals, liberals, conservatives, reactionaries and libertarians, was instead a forum of amiable unity, challenging censorship, kangaroo courts and double standards. Edwin Meese, the former attorney general who holds the Ronald Reagan chair in Public Policy at the Heritage Foundation, sat at a table with Nadine Strossen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Strossen wanted to stretch the limits of what's acceptable in polite society to make her point. She pulled a Monica Lewinsky, flashing a pair of thong panties. The panties - held up, not worn - were decorated with the emblem of the Total Information Awareness agency of the Defense Department, which civil libertarians decry as an invasion of privacy in the search for terrorists.
Nobody protested or even blushed, even if here and there someone squirmed at the pushing at the limits of taste. But she had made her point that the defense of speech of the weak or unpopular is not always polite. You might say she was illustrating the purpose of FIRE by supporting the weak against the thong.