Table of Contents

's 25 Faces of Free Speech

Images of 25 people who  has helped

For 25 years, has worked to keep the flame of First Amendment freedoms burning bright. Since our founding in 1999, we’ve managed to win pivotal victories, publish cutting-edge research, and educate countless Americans on their fundamental rights. And in recent years, we’ve protected these rights wherever they’re violated, both on campus and off. 

In celebration of how far we've come, we're shining a spotlight on 25 individuals who embody free speech values — even when the going gets tough. Their stories remind us that as often as speech comes under threat, it prevails because of the bravery of those who refuse to be silenced. We hope they inspire you, as they inspire us, to fight on. 

Interested in becoming part of a growing free speech movement? For $25, become a member and receive the FIRE Quarterly magazine in the mail.

Mary Hall-Rayford is a plaintiff in 's lawsuit against Eastpointe Mayor Monique Owens

WATCH VIDEO: Mayor abuses her authority — then gets sued

Mary Hall-Rayford

Community Leaders

Public officials are tasked with responding to the needs of their constituents — but it’s tough to do that while shouting them down. Fortunately, after the mayor of Eastpointe, Michigan, repeatedly shushed members of her own community who criticized her during the public comment period of city council meetings, Eastpointe resident Mary Hall-Rayford held her accountable. 

Along with three other Eastpointe residents, Mary sued the city with — and achieved a resounding victory for free speech this year. Thanks to their efforts, city residents now know they can voice their concerns at city council meetings, even if that means criticizing elected officials. Giving Eastpointers another reason to celebrate, the city also established an annual First Amendment Day as a reminder of the continued importance of free expression. 

Mary’s courageous actions go to show that when our rights are violated, we don’t have to sit back and accept it. When public servants fail to uphold their duty, everyday citizens can perform the public service of fighting back.

Haskell Indian Nations University Student Journalist Jared Nally

WATCH VIDEO: Censored at Haskell Indian Nations University

Jared Nally

Brave Students

In 2020, Jared Nally was editor-in-chief of the student newspaper at Haskell Indian Nations University. When a campus community member died, Jared did his job by reaching out to local police seeking more information. 

This didn’t sit well with Haskell’s then-president, who forbade Jared from interviewing government officials and accused him of violating Haskell policy by failing to treat community members with the “highest respect.” Then, Haskell withheld more than $10,000 in funds from the student paper. 

With ’s help, Jared sued Haskell and won. Less than a year later, the court mandated reforms that now protect the expressive rights of all Haskell students.

Emerson College student KJ Lynum

WATCH VIDEO: They criticized the Chinese government. Emerson College punished them.

KJ Lynum

Brave Students

Then a leader of Emerson College’s Turning Point USA chapter, KJ Lynum and fellow TPUSA members passed out stickers reading “China Kinda Sus” (slang for “suspicious”) on campus. The next thing she knew, Emerson’s president emailed the whole student body to denounce TPUSA for promoting “anti-Asian bigotry.” Then, Emerson suspended the student group.

“Being Singaporean-Chinese myself, to be called anti-Asian was very, very strange,” said KJ, recounting the event at a 2023 gala. 

Emerson held fast to its decision despite valiant efforts from KJ and , but KJ’s advocacy didn’t end there. In a ad campaign highlighting people who refused to cave to censorship, KJ made a negative example of Emerson and a powerful case for freedom of speech. “The whole point of attending college is to learn from one another,” she said. “When a school shuts down speech, the opportunity for growth is completely stripped away.”

Samson Cournane, the 15-year-old college student fighting a hospital over his free speech

WATCH VIDEO: Meet the kid a hospital is trying to silence

Samson Cournane

Brave Students

Samson Cournane isn’t your average 15-year-old. A computer science major at the University of Maine, he is also a fierce advocate for the causes he believes in. When Samson discovered troubling reports of patient safety issues at his local hospital, he started an online petition advocating for improvements and spoke out about the issue. For that, the hospital’s parent corporation tried to shut him up by threatening a bogus lawsuit — a classic example of a SLAPP, or strategic lawsuit against public participation. 

Some young people might be scared silent in this situation, but Samson knows that free speech principles and state law are on his side. “I have the right to stand up and speak my mind without being bullied into silence,” he said.

With , Samson is demanding the healthcare conglomerate retract its lawsuit threat. In doing so, he's sending a clear message to would-be censors everywhere: “Young people have free speech rights just like everyone else.”

Student Hayden Barnes

Hayden Barnes

Brave Students

Sometimes thin-skinned administrators can’t tolerate even the slightest criticism — or take a joke. Just ask Hayden Barnes, who was expelled from Valdosta State University in 2007 for posting a satirical collage on Facebook. 

The Georgia college student poked fun at Valdosta’s then-president Ronald Zaccari's pet project of constructing two parking garages on campus and criticized its potential environmental impact. The president then personally ordered Hayden removed from campus, claiming that his collage was evidence that Hayden presented a “clear and present danger” to VSU. With help from , the student fought back by filing a lawsuit against the university and its president. Finally, in 2015, the lawsuit concluded with a $900,000 settlement. 

“I know as a result of this case other students will have their constitutional rights respected,” Hayden said.

Northern Michigan University student Katerina Klawes

Katerina Klawes

Brave Students

When Katerina Klawes, a student at Northern Michigan University, sought counseling help in 2015, she received an email from an administrator warning her against discussing “suicidal or self-destructive thoughts” with other students. Later that year, another NMU student circulated a similar email on social media, and NMU admitted to sending up to 30 such emails per semester.

Instead of accepting these sweeping restrictions on expressive rights, Katerina started a change.org petition and reached out to , who warned NMU that imposing a gag order on discussing mental health challenges is not only dangerous for students — it’s unconstitutional. In 2016, thanks to Katerina’s courage and persistence, NMU finally announced that it would end its ban on discussing self-harm.

Sami Al-Asady

Sami Al-Asady

Brave Students

Sami Al-Asady knows firsthand the dangers of censorship: His father fled Iraq after his grandfather and uncle were killed for criticizing Saddam Hussein’s regime, and Sami’s mother narrowly escaped genocide in the Bosnian War. 

Sami wrote about these experiences in ’s 2021 Free Speech Essay Contest for high schoolers, and won second place. Later, as a Campus Scholar, Sami hosted an event to promote civil discourse and highlight the importance of free speech in collective learning and academic freedom. Now a senior honors student at Arizona State University, he continues to be a leading young voice for free speech as an active member of the Student Network. 

Writer James Kirchick

WATCH VIDEO: The First Amendment created gay America

Jamie Kirchick

Writers

As a journalist, Fellow Jamie Kirchick knows that his work depends on the right to express himself freely. And he often exercises that right by exposing rights abuses and defending civil liberties.

His writing reveals a career-long interest in confronting abuses of power. His latest book, “Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington,” chronicles the federal government’s ousting of gay men and women from government jobs during the Cold War, when fears of communism reached a fever pitch. When Jamie is not exposing the sordid history of censorship, he can be found arguing for abolishing campus speech codes or advocating lending an ear to those we find offensive.

“Without the ability to express ourselves, no other rights are possible," said Jamie in a conversation with . "So if you care about providing healthcare for all Americans, or if you care about racial justice, or if you care about LGBT rights — if you care about any issue — you can’t advocate for that unless you have freedom of expression.”

Photo of Emma Camp standing in 's previous office

WATCH VIDEO: Why the First Amendment Matters

Emma Camp

Writers

In 2022, former intern Emma Camp’s New York Times op-ed about the speech culture at the University of Virginia sparked heated debate. 

The piece detailed Emma's experience at UVA, which she said was characterized by “strict ideological conformity” instead of “intellectual diversity and rigorous disagreement.” 

For speaking up about the unfortunate state of discourse on campus, Emma faced widespread criticism, but she refused to self-censor. Today, as an assistant editor at Reason Magazine, Emma is a fierce advocate for free speech in law and culture, exposing issues like invasive social media age-verification laws and opaque college speech restrictions.

Mark Berkson

WATCH VIDEO: Courageous Hamline professor receives award for defending colleague fired for showing a picture of Muhammad during an art history class.

Mark Berkson

Outspoken Educators

When Hamline University professor Erika López Prater's contract was nonrenewed because she showed an image of the prophet Muhammad in an art history class, Mark Berkson felt compelled to speak up. 

Despite knowing that defending his colleague put him at odds with his employer, he publicly championed her right to teach challenging material and criticized university leadership for failing to respect that right. For his bravery, he earned ’s first inaugural Berkson Courageous Colleague Award. 

“We live in a time when faculty can face the loss of jobs, condemnation by their supervisors and their students, and endure hits to their reputation with an impact on their careers just for teaching their subject matter,” Mark said in his acceptance speech. “Teachers from primary school to graduate schools must have courage in the face of threats from the state, university administrators, and elsewhere.”

Alice Dreger

Alice Dreger

Outspoken Educators

Bioethics professor Alice Dreger was in the process of writing a book defending academic freedom for sex researchers when her own academic freedom came under threat. Northwestern University censored an article that had been published in an academic journal she edited — because it referenced a consensual blowjob that occurred in 1978. 

Alice went public with the story, but the dean refused to promise that the censorship wouldn't happen again. Unwilling to work under the watchful eye of the administration, she resigned. 

"Vague statements of commitment to the principle of academic freedom mean little when the institution’s apparent understanding of academic freedom in concrete circumstances means so little," she wrote the provost. 

Today, Alice continues to pursue her academic interests and champion free speech issues in higher ed, exhorting academics to defend the rights of even those with whom they deeply disagree.

John McWhorter

WATCH VIDEO: John McWhorter Uncensored

John McWhorter

Outspoken Educators

Linguist, sociologist, and advisory council member John McWhorter believes in examining all sides of an issue — even when it's unpopular. 

Despite frequently fielding criticism for his unorthodox perspectives on race, cancel culture, and language, he continues to weigh in on controversial topics in his books, frequent podcast appearances, and weekly column for The New York Times, bringing thoughtful analysis to a broad public audience.

“If we’re talking about an issue that’s worth discussing, there are inevitably going to be several legitimate viewpoints that need to be assessed,” said John in an interview with . “If you want to get out of people everything that is useful to assessing an issue, you want people to feel free to express themselves.”

Nicholas Christakis

Nicholas Christakis

Outspoken Educators

In 2015, Yale University professor Nicholas Christakis found himself at the center of an event that came to epitomize the problem of “safetyism” on U.S. college campuses.

A large group of students gathered to protest an email sent by Nicholas’ wife, then-Yale instructor Erika Christakis, who had questioned the necessity of an earlier message from the university’s Intercultural Affairs Committee instructing students not to wear culturally insensitive Halloween costumes. Though some students shouted at him, threatened him, and demanded an apology, Nicholas respectfully engaged with the crowd for two hours, attempting to respond to their concerns and to help them to understand the issues at stake.

“I stand behind free speech,” he told the crowd. “I defend the right for people to speak their minds.”

Since then, the professor has maintained his reputation as a staunch and articulate speech defender in his public commentary and as a member of FIRE's advisory council. And in 2023, he and Erika earned FIRE's first-ever Silverglate Award for their advocacy in the face of resistance on campus.

Carole Hooven

Carole Hooven

Outspoken Educators

Harvard evolutionary biology lecturer Carole Hooven didn’t set out to cause controversy, but her research on hormones and behavior led her to conclusions on a third-rail topic that drove a wedge between her and her peers. 

After defending the use of the terms “male” and “female” in a public interview, Carole endured a media firestorm and backlash from students, professors, and administrators, some of whom publicly disparaged her for simply sharing her views. The professor defended herself, but the environment became so hostile, she ultimately resigned. 

Fortunately, her story doesn’t end there. In the wake of the controversy, faculty formed the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard to further free inquiry and intellectual diversity on campus. As an active member of the now-more-than-170-member group, Carole is working toward a Harvard where faculty can fearlessly pursue Veritas.

“If there is any silver lining to losing the career that I found so fulfilling,” she wrote in The Free Press, “perhaps it’s that my story will help explain the fear that stalks campuses, a fear that spreads every time someone is punished for their speech.”

Sam Rechek and Professor Adriana Novoa

WATCH VIDEO: Court stops 'dystopian' Stop WOKE Act. Now what?

Sam Rechek and Professor Adriana Novoa

Unsilenceable Academics

In 2022, Florida passed the “Stop WOKE” Act, which contained provisions that unconstitutionally restricted academic speech in the state’s public college classrooms. This didn’t sit right with student Sam Rechek and scholar Adriana Novoa. 

“I came to college to have real debates about issues that are important to me — not to have politicians decide which conversations are too controversial for class,” said Sam, who interned with in 2020 and founded the University of South Florida’s First Amendment Forum. 

Adriana Novoa, a professor of history at USF, grew up under a dictatorship in Argentina. “The government should not tell the people what they can talk and think about,” she said.

Sam and Adriana joined in a lawsuit challenging the Stop WOKE Act provisions that apply to higher ed. In November 2022, their efforts paid off when a federal judge halted enforcement of these provisions, calling them “positively dystopian.”

Bill Blanken

WATCH VIDEO: sues to halt California Community College DEI mandates

Bill Blanken

Unsilenceable Academics

What’s the “anti-racist” perspective on the atomic mass of boron? As a professor of chemistry at Reedley College in California, Bill Blanken found himself asking this question after the California Community Colleges System required all professors to incorporate state-sanctioned views on diversity, equity, and inclusion in the classroom as part of its teaching and evaluation criteria for faculty advancement.

This means to be eligible for promotion or even just to keep their job professors like Bill must “acknowledge” that “cultural and social identities are diverse, fluid, and intersectional,” and “advocate for and advance DEI and anti-racist goals and initiatives” including “participating in DEI groups, committees, or community activities.”

Bill knew this wasn’t right. In fact, it’s illegal: the First Amendment protects the right of college faculty to teach and speak free from state interference. So he and five other professors are taking the community college system to court with . In doing so, they’re leading the charge to vindicate not only their own rights but the rights of thousands of California professors.

Priscilla Villarreal

Priscilla Villarreal

Fearless fact-finders

Priscilla Villarreal started reporting the local news in Laredo, Texas in 2015, covering everything from traffic to the weather to crime and police corruption. Her direct, no-nonsense style — along with her nickname, “Lagordiloca,” or “the crazy fat woman” — resonated with her audience, who now number more than 200,000 on Facebook.

But many local officials weren’t fans. They didn’t like Priscilla’s criticism.

So in 2017 the Laredo Police Department dug up an old law — which made it a felony to request “non-public information” from a government official — and put Villarreal behind bars for asking a police officer to confirm information about two news stories. 

Still, Priscilla is sticking to her convictions. With the help of , she sued, and now she continues to battle for her First Amendment rights — and ours — by holding these officials accountable. Today, her case is awaiting possible review from the Supreme Court.

Jeff Gray

WATCH VIDEO: Hold a "God Bless the Homeless Vets" sign? Not in these Georgia cities.

Jeff Gray

FEARLESS FACT-FINDERS

Imagine being arrested for holding up a sign that says “God Bless the Homeless Vets.”

That’s what happened to Jeff Gray, a U.S. Army veteran and retired truck driver who faced consequences from law enforcement for doing this in public spaces in three Georgia cities. 

“I have been harassed, trespassed, handcuffed and arrested countless times for peacefully exercising my First Amendment rights,” said Jeff. “My intention is to ensure that all Americans from the wealthiest millionaire to the poorest homeless person can exercise these rights without fear of consequence from our government.”

With , Jeff’s doing just that, and together we won resounding victories for free speech. The City of Port Wentworth committed to training its officers on First Amendment rights and to donating a symbolic $1,791 — a nod to the year the First Amendment was ratified — to a charity for homeless veterans. And the city of Blackshear agreed to eliminate an unconstitutional ordinance that required the mayor’s permission to hold a demonstration.

A true free speech advocate, Jeff is committed to continuing to fight for the cause. “I won’t stop speaking out on behalf of myself and my fellow citizens,” he said.

Daryl Davis

WATCH VIDEO: Fighting the KKK with ROCK N' ROLL

Daryl Davis

Courageous Creatives

Without free speech, Daryl Davis couldn’t do what he does — and what he does is truly special.

Daryl performs music all over the world, but for nearly three decades he’s also been spearheading another project: Interviewing members of the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists. Why? Because he wanted to find an answer to a question that has been burning in his mind since first experiencing racism as a child: “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?” 

Through those conversations, over many years, Daryl has not just interviewed these people, he has befriended them. More than that, he now owns more than 200 Klan robes and other paraphernalia — gifted to him by those who, because of their relationship with Daryl, renounced their hateful ideologies. If he had refused to engage, or if he had tried to silence them instead, they may never have changed their minds.

Virginia Postrel

Virginia Postrel

Courageous Creatives

Virginia Postrel — described in Vanity Fair as “a master D.J. who sequences the latest riffs from the hard sciences, the social sciences, business, and technology, to name only a few sources” — is an author, columnist, and speaker, former Reason Magazine editor in chief, and a current member of ’s board of directors.

With respect to free speech, Virginia is as ardent as they come, protecting the rights of everyone to speak their mind and advocating for a robust education on the principles of free speech in academia. For example, she has argued against so-called “free speech zones” on college campuses. “Education isn’t a matter of sitting students down and dumping pre-digested information into their heads,” she wrote in a column for Bloomberg View. “Higher education exists to advance and transmit knowledge, and learning requires disagreement and argument”

As a member of ’s board of directors, Virginia is at the forefront of free speech advocacy — leading the charge toward fulfilling ’s mission of fostering a culture of free speech and free expression for generations to come.

Isaac Smith and Mary Beth Tinker

Mary Beth Tinker

Ardent Advocates

Not everyone has a Supreme Court case on their resume, but Mary Beth Tinker does.

In 1965, a 13-year-old Mary Beth and four others wore black armbands to school, in memory of those who had fallen during the Vietnam War.

Administrators knew this was coming, and preemptively drafted a policy against wearing armbands in school. When the students refused to remove them, they were suspended. This led to the blockbuster Supreme Court decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District that public school students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

These days, Mary Beth devotes her time to educating young people across the country about their rights — a project she calls The Tinker Tour.

"Now is an important moment in our history,” she says. “Students need to hear stories of other youth who, throughout history and today, have made a difference by bringing the Constitution to life.”

Will Creeley

WATCH VIDEO: If it's protected, we'll defend it. No apologies.

Will Creeley

Ardent Advocates

If there was ever a free speech lifer, it would be Legal Director Will Creeley.

Whether he’s overseeing ’s Litigation, Legislative and Policy, and Policy Reform, and Targeted Advocacy departments; doing spots on national television and radio on ’s behalf; writing persuasive op-eds; delivering barnburner speeches at functions; or talking to thousands of students, faculty, administrators, and attorneys about First Amendment rights at events across the country — Will has been an unyielding force for free speech since he joined in 2006.

As affable as he is experienced, Will’s insight into First Amendment law is unmatched, and always delivered with a characteristic wit and charm.

Nadine Strossen

Nadine Strossen

Ardent Advocates

If you know about free speech, you know about Nadine Strossen. As the past national president of the ACLU and the author of numerous books, including “HATE,” “In Defense of Pornography,” and “Free Speech: What Everyone Needs to Know,” Strossen is among the most in-demand experts on constitutional law and civil liberties. 

She travels across the country 200 days a year speaking to students, teachers, and others about the power and importance of a principled defense of free expression, and remains one of the most tireless advocates for the culture of free speech in this — or any — era.

Ira Glasser

WATCH VIDEO: Mighty Ira documentary trailer

Ira Glasser

Ardent Advocates

"The battle for civil liberties is never really won; it must be fought anew in each generation," said Ira Glasser, former executive director of the ACLU and tireless advocate for free expression for more than five decades.

Ira played a major role in one of the most seminal cases in the ACLU’s history: defending the right of Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois in 1977. The case put the ACLU’s principled defense of free speech on the map, and it became a benchmark for all First Amendment advocates and advocacy organizations that would follow, including .

An author, speaker, and subject of the 2020 documentary “Mighty Ira,” directed by ’s own Nico Perrino, Ira continues to defend the principles of free expression, and he stands as an inspiration for a new generation of free speech advocates.

Bucknell Open Discourse Coalition leader Charles Mitchell

Charles Mitchell

Community Leaders

Some college alums never look back after graduation. But Charles Mitchell’s dedication to improving his school extended beyond his time as a student. Charles took the reins of the Bucknell Open Discourse Coalition, an alumni group dedicated to bringing diverse viewpoints to campus. 

Under his leadership, the enterprising group helped raise Bucknell’s ranking in ’s College Free Speech Rankings: It even managed to clinch the top spot among Pennsylvania colleges in 2023. The coalition continues to open up conversation at Bucknell by hosting speakers from across the political spectrum and spearheading pro-free speech programming for students. 

The coalition’s success is a hopeful sign that with enough cultivation from community members, a positive culture can grow even at a university with a spotty track-record on free speech.

Recent Articles

FIRE’s award-winning Newsdesk covers the free speech news you need to stay informed.

Share