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." It was founded in February of 2018. As of May of that year had one employee, it's president Nicole Neily. Speech First's legal actions have included joining a suit against affirmative action practices and against "bias response teams."
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"
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.”  Hans A. von Spakovsky of the Heritage Foundation claims the bias response team is "the university’s equivalent of the Thought Police."
The University of Michigan says the lawsuit is "a false caricature” of the university’s free speech policies and practices.
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. Such makes up a “negligible part” of Speech First's Funding "which mainly comes from undisclosed backers." Speech First is awaiting 501(c)(3) certification from the IRS, meaning Speech First "doesn’t have to disclose donors’ identities.
Speech First is not required to disclose its funders. Its major funders, however, can be found through a search of IRS filings.
- Bader Family Foundation: $30,000 (2018)
- Judicial Education Project: $1,000,000 (2017-2018)
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."
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."
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."
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.
- 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 August 2020:
- Nicole Neily, president
- Ross Abbot, legal fellow
Board of Directors
- Montse Alvarado
- Josh Holdenried
- Jamil Jaffer
- Kathryn Ciano Mauler
- Adam White
- Kim Dennis
- Kate Comerford Todd
1030 15th St NW
Washington, DC 20005
Phone: (571) 766-6883
Articles and Resources
IRS Form 990 Filings
- David Armiak and Ralph Wilson, Kochs’ Dark-Money Network Bankrolls Campus “Free Speech” Group, ExposedbyCMD, June 11, 2019.</ref>
- Case Files CASE FILES: SPEECH FIRST V. U OF M; PLAINTIFF’S REPLY TO DEFENDANTS’ RESPONSE TO MOTION FOR PRELIMINARY INJUNCTION Speech First, accessed July 2018
- Daniel Moattar The Dark Money Behind Campus Speech Wars The Nation, July 9, 2018
- Benjamin Wermund The free speech group that’s about to ‘flood the zone’ Politico, May 24, 2018
- Nicole Neily The real campus speech problem must be solved in the courts The Hill, May 18, 2018
- Hans von Spakovsky It's now 1984 at the University of Michigan The Heritage Foundation, May 16, 2018
- the University of Michigan Speech First The University Record, June 15, 2018
- Cato Institute Nicole Neily Organizational Website, accessed July 2018
- Nicole Neily LinkedIn Profile professional profile, accessed July 2018
- UnKoch My Campus The Battle for The Campus Advancing White Supremacy Through Academic Strategy, accessed July of 2018
- Speech First, 2018 990, Speech First, Nov 15, 2019.
- Speech First, 2017 990, Speech First, Nov 14, 2018.
- Speech First, About, Speech First, August 2020.