The Center for Individual Rights began operations in April 1989. The founders, Michael McDonald and Michael Greve, met through their work at the Washington Legal Foundation. McDonald, an attorney, specialized in First Amendment litigation and had launched WLF’s Legal Studies Division in 1987; Greve, in turn, wrote on environmental issues and assisted with WLF’s fundraising
Prior to that time, the conservative public interest law movement generally had been hindered by two problems: first, many conservative firms tended to avoid original litigation, preferring instead to file cost-saving (but largely ineffectual) amicus briefs; and, second, these firms generally maintained large legal staffs, a circumstance which required substantial fundraising activities.
McDonald and Greve knew that public interest law firms could, over time, change the law. Liberal groups such as the ACLU and Public Citizen had proved that. Successful public interest law firms tended to be smaller, more specialized, and better-able to utilize available outside resources. CIR marked an attempt to duplicate the success of liberal public interest law firms in the conservative public interest realm.
Its name was chosen to underscore that its objective would be to defend individual liberties, broadly understood to encompass both civil and economic rights.
From the outset, CIR specialized in a small number of areas of litigation: free speech and civil rights being the two most important. Concentration would enable CIR to provide timely, practical and knowledgeable representation to real clients and to develop and implement a coherent, long-term litigation program in each of its areas.
CIR’s first Board of Directors consisted of Greve, McDonald, well-known civil rights attorney Michael Carvin, Cornell University Professor Jeremy Rabkin and Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering partner Gary Born.
CIR’s budget was a modest $220,000 during its first year of operation, mostly in grants from a handful of conservative foundations. Its small revenue base notwithstanding, 1989 was a good year to have opened a conservative public interest firm. The Reagan Administration had just ended and the number of conservative lawyers in the for-profit sector had increased. Many partners and associates shared the Center’s ideals and objectives and were eager to help with its cases.
CIR offered conservative, libertarian and moderate attorneys in for-profit firms an opportunity to bring about meaningful legal change and to contribute to the principled defense of individual liberty in court. Co-operating attorneys nearly always worked on precedent-setting cases involving real, live plaintiffs rather than amicus causes. CIR’s clients, in turn, were able to obtain some of the best-qualified attorneys in the nation to represent them in court.
The results over the past twenty-seven years of CIR’s existence speak for themselves.
A chronology of important CIR cases and developments
CIR launched a vigorous defense of speech rights of students and professors on college and university campuses and various speech codes were invalidated as a result of CIR intervention. These major victories in defense of academic freedom were won in the federal courts of appeals.
FCC’s Gender Preference
CIR brought and won a constitutional challenge to the FCC’s gender preference policy in competitive radio license proceeding on behalf of a rejected male applicant. Lamprecht v. FCC was first time that a federal agency preference scheme had been struck down in court.
Michael Rosman joined CIR as an in-house constitutional litigation specialist, and CIR full-time staff increased from 2 to 6 as revenues approach $700,000 mark. CIR also broadened its work in the university setting by attacking “equity” pay raises for female faculty members regardless of merit in Smith v. VCU.
CIR won a landmark ruling at the district court level in a constitutional challenge to a law school’s use of racial preferences in student admissions in Hopwood v. Texas. In BMC v. FEC, CIR also won a landmark ruling before U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on behalf of a small employment agency in discrimination lawsuit brought by “testers.” CIR mounted a constitutional challenges to the race-based study programs operated by the federal government, and in Silva v. University of New Hampshire, CIR won a nationally watched case involving the rights of professors accused of sexual harassment.
University of Virginia
CIR won a landmark victory before U.S. Supreme Court in Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia.The Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 that the University of Virginia violated the rights of CIR’s clients, the publishers of a religious student magazine, when it refused to allow them to participate in a neutral funding scheme solely because of their religious viewpoint.
Racial preference in higher education
The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its ruling in the Hopwood case, which eliminated the use of racial preferences by state funded institutions of higher education. CIR sued federal officials of the Department of Housing and Urban Development for threats of prosecution leveled at private citizens who organized peaceful protests against federally supported housing projects in White v. Lee. CIR also sued the State of Maryland for religious discrimination in the award of tuition grants in Columbia Union College v. Clarke.
California Prop 209
CIR successfully represented the sponsors of the California Civil Rights Initiative (“Prop 209”) as intervenor-defendants against the ACLU’s attempt to enjoin Prop. 209 as unconstitutional in Coalition for Economic Equality v. Wilson. CIR also agreed to represent the defendants in Brzonkala v. Virginia Polytechnic Institute. CIR revenues topped $1 million dollar mark and the full-time staff of one dozen moved to a new office.
University of Michigan
CIR challenged the use of race in the admissions process at the University of Michigan undergraduate and law schools in Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger. CIR also launched a constitutional challenge to the Department of Defense and SBA “8(a)” minority contracting set-aside program in DynaLantic Corp. v. DoD.
CIR represented the owner of a low-power, non-commercial radio station in a First Amendment challenge to FCC’s refusal to license so-called “micro-broadcasters” in GRID Radio v. FCC. CIR pressed an attack against a judicially mandated “whites-only” scholarships at traditionally black university in Tompkins v. ASU. CIR initiated lawsuits at various universities to prevent the elimination of men’s sports teams under OCR’s misinterpretation of Title IX in Boulahanis v. Illinois State University.
CIR won two landmark rulings in the 1999-2000 term before the U.S. Supreme Court. In Reno v. Bossier Parish School District, the Court ruled that the Justice Department may not force jurisdictions covered under the Voting Rights Act to engage in racial gerrymandering, and in United States v. Morrison, the Court ruled that Congress exceeded its authority under the Commerce Clause in enacting a key provision of the Violence Against Women Act.
Funding for religious schools
In Columbia Union College v. Clarke, a federal appellate court ruled in favor of Columbia Union, declaring that religious institutions may receive state funding for secular purposes. CIR received conflicting rulings in race preference cases in different federal districts (Hopwood v. Texas, Gratz v. Bollinger, Grutter v. Bollinger, Smith v. Washington), setting up the Supreme Court to take one of the cases.
Political Free Speech
In December, the Supreme Court agreed to hear CIR’s race preference cases Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger. CIR also achieved several significant victories in the area of free speech including Spyniewski v. Warrenhills Regional School System, where CIR defended a student punished for wearing a politically incorrect t-shirt, and Father Flanagan’s Boys Home V. District of Columbia, et al., where CIR defended protesters of a government housing project.
University Admissions & Racial Preference
In June, the Supreme Court ruled in the cases of Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger. The Court struck down the mechanical race preferences used by Michigan’s undergraduate admissions office but let stand the law school’s race preference scheme. Gratz and Grutter have served as the template for all later challenges to racial preferences in admissions.
CIR successfully represented education student Scott McConnell following his summary expulsion for a paper he wrote concerning classroom discipline (McConnell v. LeMoyne). CIR also successfully represented a New Jersey high school student who was suspended for wearing a humorous t-shirt celebrating “red neck” sports fans. (Sypniewski v. Warren Hills R.S.D).
CIR successfully defended the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative against a last-minute effort to keep it off the ballot on the theory that it violated the Federal Voting Rights Act (Operation King’s Dream v. Ward Connerly). CIR also successfully sued to end a race exclusive summer enrichment program operated by the Dow Jones Foundation and numerous city newspapers (Smith v. Virginia Commonwealth University).
Michigan Civil Rights
CIR defended the newly enacted Michigan Civil Rights Initiative against efforts by the Governor, several Michigan universities and the Attorney General to suspend its enforcement for a period of five months. (BAMN v. Granholm).
NYC School Minority Enrollment Limitations
CIR successfully sued to end two racial preferences in the New York City School system, one that limited minority enrollment at a prestigious magnet program (Rau & Katapadi v. NYC Dept. of Education) and another that prohibited Asian students from applying for a middle school enrichment program designed to prepare students to compete for entrance to the City’s examination schools (Ng v. NYC Dept. of Education).
ACORN Free Speech Supression
In Project Vote v. Ashwanita MonCrief and John Doe, CIR successfully defended Anita MonCrief after ACORN attempted to silence her by suing her for federal trademark infringement and misappropriation of trade secrets after she published information that was critical of ACORN, her former employer. CIR also filed an amicus brief on behalf of Connecticut firefighters who were denied job promotions despite top test scores in the Supreme Court victory Frank Ricci, et al. v. John D. Destefano, et al.
First Amendment Rights
CIR filed two cases defending First Amendments rights. In Wolk v. Olson, et al., CIR represented Theodore Frank, who was sued for defamation over a blog post published on Overlawyered.com. CIR also began defending James O’Keefe after he was sued for violating state laws that require the consent of both parties before recording conversations. O’Keefe documented the actions of an ACORN employee who advised him of ways to disguise the source of proceeds from a fictitious brothel.
Racial Disparity in NYC School Systems
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit issued a landmark ruling in US v. New York City Board of Education that ended the ability of the Justice Department to coerce employers to settle discrimination complaints based solely on numerical disparities in racial representation. The court held that employers are liable for counter-suits from non-minority employees unless they show that they had a “strong basis” for concluding that the numerical disparities were actually the result of illegal discrimination.
Minority-owned Business Preference Unconstitutional
CIR achieved victory in Dynalantic v. DOD: federal district court judge Emmit Sullivan ruled that the Small Business Administration’s Section 8(a) program favoring minority-owned businesses was unconstitutional as applied to the training simulator industry because the government failed to show any history of anti-minority discrimination in that industry. While appeal was pending, the government settled the case on favorable terms to CIR’s client DynaLantic Corp.
CIR achieved three significant victories: Schuette v. BAMN (Supreme Court upheld Michigan’s amendment barring the use of racial preferences in state programs, including college admissions); Burke v. Doe (first decision interpreting DC’s anti-SLAPP statute — ruled that anonymous authors have an immediate right of appeal if denied protection under the SLAPP statute in a defamation suit); and New York Progress & Protection PAC v. Walsh (struck down New York’s unconstitutional campaign limits on independent election committees).
Blogger’s Freedom of Speech
In Katz v. Chevaldina, CIR successfully defended a blogger, Irina Chevaldina, after her former commercial landlord sued her for posting his headshot photo in her critical blog articles. In U.S. v. Elonis, CIR filed an amicus brief on behalf of Anthony Elonis, who was convicted on criminal charges for posting rap lyrics that his ex-wife found threatening to his Facebook page, in a successful Supreme Court challenge.
Second Amendment & Stun Guns
CIR filed an amicus brief that was cited in an opinion by Justices Alito and Thomas in the Supreme Court decision, Caetano v. Massachusetts. The U.S. Supreme Court vacated a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision, which would have dramatically limited the scope of the Second Amendment so as not to include stun guns. Additionally, CIR filed an amicus brief on behalf of Dr. Mary Louise Serafine, in Serafine v. Branaman, successfully arguing that a Texas law that expansively defined “psychological services” and prevented any person who was not licensed in Texas from performing those services violated the First Amendment.
Student Expulsion & Due Process
CIR achieved two significant victories. In Doe v. Alger, a U.S. District Court ruled that James Madison University violated the due process rights of a student facing sexual assault allegations by not giving him a fair hearing. In Desmond v. Harris, CIR reached a settlement with the Attorney General of California, in which he agreed not to use a law prohibiting the flying of confederate flags on public property to target the free speech of private citizens.
Union Dues for Non-members
The Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling in Janus v. AFSCME, which will prohibit public sector unions from compelling non-members to pay union dues. The Court concluded that compelling non-members to pay union dues forces them to subsidize union speech, in violation of the First Amendment. The opinion embraced the argument put forward by CIR in an amicus brief that the First Amendment requires unions to get the affirmative consent of non-members before charging them dues. Janus relied upon the legal theory that CIR had previously developed before the Supreme Court in Friedrichs v. CTA. Justice Antonin Scalia passed away soon after oral argument in Friedrichs, resulting in a 4-4 tied vote.
Guam’s Race-Based Voter Law
CIR won a significant victory in Davis v. Guam, challenging the island territory’s voter registration law, which restricted who would be allowed to vote in an upcoming plebiscite exclusively to members of the indigenous Chamorro racial group. The plebiscite would have been used to help shape the future relationship between Guam and the United States. The Ninth Circuit agreed that Guam’s law violated the Fifteenth Amendment’s prohibition on racially discriminatory voting laws.
Freedom of Speech and Freedom From Discrimination
CIR launched four major new cases. Early in the year, we filed Barke v. Banks, challenging a California law that prohibits public employers from saying anything that may “deter or discourage” union membership. We followed Barke with Ultima Services v. USDA, which challenges Section 8(a), a racial set-aside for federal government contracts. In November, we filed suit against the state of Oregon and two nonprofits, in Cocina Cultura v. Oregon, for establishing a coronavirus relief program that exclusively served black individuals and black-owned small businesses. At the end of the year, we filed Wang v. University of Pittsburgh, defending the free speech of Dr. Norman Wang, who was demoted, libeled, and censored for writing an academic article that criticized affirmative action.