Speech First

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Speech First purports to be "a nonprofit membership association working to combat restrictions on free speech and other civil rights at colleges and universities across the United States."[1] It was founded in February of 2018.[2] As of May of that year had one employee, it's president Nicole Neily.[3] Speech First's legal actions have included joining a suit against affirmative action practices and against "bias response teams."[3]

News and Controversies

Lawsuit Against "Orwellian" Speech "Chilling" Policies

On May 08, 2018, Speech First filed a lawsuit, Speech First v. Schlissel et. al, asking "the court to declare that the school’s speech code and bias response team violate students’ rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments"[4]

After conservation with three students, who chose to remain anonymous, Speech First filed the suit because those students were "so afraid of the university's bias response team" that they could only speak with each other about politics in their dorm rooms. According to Politico, the bias response team "investigates claims of verbal harassment, racist incidents and the like." Neily describes the bias teams as "surprisingly Orwellian.” [3] Hans A. von Spakovsky of the Heritage Foundation claims the bias response team is "the university’s equivalent of the Thought Police."[5]

The University of Michigan says the lawsuit is "a false caricature” of the university’s free speech policies and practices.[6]

Ties to the Koch Brothers

Speech First's president and only listed employee, Nicole Neily has worked for many Koch-affiliated groups. Neily was the president of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, the Cato Institute’s manager of external relations, the coalition relations manager for FreedomWorks’ Center for Global Economic Growth, and a "Koch summer fellow for both the Center for Financial Privacy and Human Rights and the Competitive Enterprise Institute."[7]

Additionally, Neily is associated with other Koch-affiliated groups. Neily served as a board member for Young Voices and Young Americans for Liberty.[8]

According to UnKoch My Campus, "SpeechFirst's board members include DonorsTrust Chair, Kim Dennis, and former ACLU deputy legal director, Jameel Jaffer. Jaffer is also the Executive Director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, which was recently promised a $3.25 million dollar commitment from the Charles Koch Foundation to “investigate and address the most pressing challenges to the freedoms of speech and the press.”The Knight Institute claims to have “encouraged debate and reflection” in issues including unwanted speakers being drown out, also known as “the heckler’s veto.” Meanwhile, Speech First has taken a firm position against it and is ready to sue."[9]

The Nation, characterized Speech First as "a highly professional astro-turfing campaign, with a board of former Bush Administration lawyers and longtime affiliates of the Koch family...Speech First’s board of directors includes a former head of a Koch-backed trust and two conservative attorneys from Koch-funded programs."[2]

Koch Wiki

Charles Koch is the right-wing billionaire owner of Koch Industries. As one of the richest people in the world, he is a key funder of the right-wing infrastructure, including the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the State Policy Network (SPN). In SourceWatch, key articles on Charles Koch and his late brother David include: Koch Brothers, Americans for Prosperity, Stand Together Chamber of Commerce, Stand Together, Koch Family Foundations, Koch Universities, and I360.

Ties to the State Policy Network

Speech First is an associate member of SPN. SPN is a web of right-wing “think tanks” and tax-exempt organizations in 50 states, Washington, D.C., Canada, and the United Kingdom. As of April 2023, SPN's membership totals 163. Today's SPN is the tip of the spear of far-right, nationally funded policy agenda in the states that undergirds extremists in the Republican Party. SPN Executive Director Tracie Sharp told the Wall Street Journal in 2017 that the revenue of the combined groups was some $80 million, but a 2022 analysis of SPN's main members IRS filings by the Center for Media and Democracy shows that the combined revenue is over $152 million.[10] Although SPN's member organizations claim to be nonpartisan and independent, the Center for Media and Democracy's in-depth investigation, "EXPOSED: The State Policy Network -- The Powerful Right-Wing Network Helping to Hijack State Politics and Government," reveals that SPN and its member think tanks are major drivers of the right-wing, American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)-backed corporate agenda in state houses nationwide, with deep ties to the Koch brothers and the national right-wing network of funders.[11]

In response to CMD's report, SPN Executive Director Tracie Sharp told national and statehouse reporters that SPN affiliates are "fiercely independent." Later the same week, however, The New Yorker's Jane Mayer caught Sharp in a contradiction. In her article, "Is IKEA the New Model for the Conservative Movement?," the Pulitzer-nominated reporter revealed that, in a recent meeting behind closed doors with the heads of SPN affiliates around the country, Sharp "compared the organization’s model to that of the giant global chain IKEA." She reportedly said that SPN "would provide 'the raw materials,' along with the 'services' needed to assemble the products. Rather than acting like passive customers who buy finished products, she wanted each state group to show the enterprise and creativity needed to assemble the parts in their home states. 'Pick what you need,' she said, 'and customize it for what works best for you.'" Not only that, but Sharp "also acknowledged privately to the members that the organization's often anonymous donors frequently shape the agenda. 'The grants are driven by donor intent,' she told the gathered think-tank heads. She added that, often, 'the donors have a very specific idea of what they want to happen.'"[12]

A set of coordinated fundraising proposals obtained and released by The Guardian in early December 2013 confirm many of these SPN members' intent to change state laws and policies, referring to "advancing model legislation" and "candidate briefings." These activities "arguably cross the line into lobbying," The Guardian notes.[13]


In May of 2018, Neily refused to disclose donor information to Politico and refused to say if the Kochs were involved to The Nation. The organization collects $5 dues from its members. Neily said in May that Speech First had around 1,000 members.[3] Such makes up a “negligible part” of Speech First's Funding "which mainly comes from undisclosed backers."[2]

Speech First is not required to disclose its funders. Its major funders, however, can be found through a search of IRS filings.

Core Financials


  • Total Revenue: $2,325,417
  • Total Expenses: $2,152,448
  • Net Assets: $518,536


  • Total Revenue: $2,272,281
  • Total Expenses: $2,281,390
  • Net Assets: $345,567


  • Total Revenue: $2,294,011
  • Total Expenses: $1,671,802
  • Net Assets: $354,676


  • Total Revenue: $1,262,640
  • Total Expenses: $1,556,841
  • Net Assets: $-267,533


  • Total Revenue: $1,253,461
  • Total Expenses: $1,476,793
  • Net Assets: $26,668


  • Total Revenue: $250,000
  • Total Expenses: $0
  • Net Assets: $250,000


As of November 2023:[20]


  • Cherise Trump, Executive Director
  • Mary Ellen Beatty, Director of Operations
  • Ben Leach, Donor Relations Officer
  • Jared Gould, Research Fellow
  • Avery Round, Research Intern
  • Izzy Doricko, Research Intern

Former Staff

  • Kiara Kincaid, Research Intern
  • Ross Abbot, legal fellow
  • Nicole Neily, president

Board of Directors

As of November 2023:[21]

  • Nicole Neily
  • Josh Holdenried
  • Jamil Jaffer
  • Kathryn Ciano Mauler
  • Matthew Foldi
  • Max Eden

Former Directors

  • Montse Alvarado
  • Kim Dennis
  • Kate Comerford Todd
  • Adam White

Contact Information

Speech First
1030 15th St NW
Suite 374
Washington, DC 20005
Phone: (571) 766-6883
Email: info@speechfirst.org
Website: https://speechfirst.org/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/speech_first
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/speechfirstorg/
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/speech_first/

Articles and Resources

IRS Form 990 Filings







Application for Tax-Exempt Status

1023 Application



  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Daniel Moattar The Dark Money Behind Campus Speech Wars The Nation, July 9, 2018
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Benjamin Wermund The free speech group that’s about to ‘flood the zone’ Politico, May 24, 2018
  4. Nicole Neily The real campus speech problem must be solved in the courts The Hill, May 18, 2018
  5. Hans von Spakovsky It's now 1984 at the University of Michigan The Heritage Foundation, May 16, 2018
  6. the University of Michigan Speech First The University Record, June 15, 2018
  7. Cato Institute Nicole Neily Organizational Website, accessed July 2018
  8. Nicole Neily LinkedIn Profile professional profile, accessed July 2018
  9. UnKoch My Campus The Battle for The Campus Advancing White Supremacy Through Academic Strategy, accessed July of 2018
  10. David Armiak, State Policy Network and Affiliates Raises $152 Million Annually to Push Right-Wing Policies, ExposedbyCMD, September 30, 2022.
  11. Rebekah Wilce, Center for Media and Democracy, EXPOSED: The State Policy Network -- The Powerful Right-Wing Network Helping to Hijack State Politics and Government, organizational report, November 13, 2013.
  12. Jane Mayer, Is IKEA the New Model for the Conservative Movement?, The New Yorker, November 15, 2013.
  13. Ed Pilkington and Suzanne Goldenberg, State conservative groups plan US-wide assault on education, health and tax, The Guardian, December 5, 2013.
  14. Speech First, 2022 990, Speech First, Nov 13, 2023.
  15. Speech First, 2021 990, Speech First, Nov 4, 2022.
  16. Speech First, 2020 990, Speech First, Nov 15, 2021.
  17. Speech First, 2019 990, Speech First, Nov 12, 2020.
  18. Speech First, 2018 990, Speech First, Nov 15, 2019.
  19. Speech First, 2017 990, Speech First, Nov 14, 2018.
  20. Speech First, Team, Speech First, accessed November 2023.
  21. Speech First, Team, Speech First, accessed November 2023.