Michelle Freridge

Sam Williams
Michelle Freridge doesn't boast a porn industry pedigree, but to paraphrase the most famous words written by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, she knows an oppressed populace when she sees it.

"Civil rights and social justice have always been very motivational for me," Freridge, executive director of the Free Speech Coalition, says. "My mission is to protect the membership and provide the benefits of the organization to all members."

It's a mission that borrows directly from her experience as a social activist. Working on behalf of marginalized groups such as battered women, American Indians and at-risk teenagers, Freridge has intimate familiarity with the good and bad sides of the government. Equally important, however, is her familiarity with the good and bad sides of nonprofit work, a field known for passion but not always managerial expertise.

Freridge's career prior to joining the FSC in 2004 included managing a $12 million budget at the San Diego YMCA and raising from scratch a $3 million budget for the San Gabriel Valley's Asian Youth Center.

Added together, Freridge's rare combination of passion and managerial know-how have helped turn the FSC — a group that boasted fewer than 300 members and two employees at the time of Freridge's hiring — into a 3,500-plus-member organization with nine full-time employees and a half-dozen independent contractors.

"Michelle has the ability to get things done in the adult industry in a way that has never been done before," 1st Amendment lawyer Lawrence Walters, a close ally of the FSC in the recent 2257 regulatory fight, says. "She has the kind of vision that's been elusive."

To understand Freridge's current place within the adult entertainment power elite, it helps to go back to her childhood roots. Growing up on a subsistence farm north of Battle Creek, Mich., Freridge learned early on to think and provide for herself.

"My parents were educators and hippies," she says. "They were very moral people without being religious but with very strong values about people being equal and the government representing the interests of the people."

Such values led initially to a career in government work. After graduating from Michigan State with a degree in history and a thematic emphasis on women's studies, Freridge worked for the Michigan Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence and later with the Michigan State Police. In the latter job, she served as a liaison to the state's 10 recognized American Indian tribes.

"That's when the first violence against women grant monies came down and the first restraining orders were being issued," she says. "We worked on making sure that if a restraining order was issued by the tribal council, when the perpetrator left the reservation, the Michigan police could pick them up and vice versa."

In 1999, however, Freridge left her government job to focus on social movement work. Working for a variety of civil rights advocacy groups, she developed an affinity for grant writing, program development and evaluation. It was this final skill — the ability to verify through testing and feedback whether a program has met its targets and fund expectations — that gave her the confidence to move into management. In 2001, Freridge moved to San Diego County, taking a job first with AmeriCorps and then with Chula Vista-based South Bay Community Services. At the second job, she helped put together an incubator designed to bring new businesses into low-income neighborhoods.

"That gave me some insight into the for-profit sector," she says.

It also offered insight into the challenges of mission management. One of South Bay Community Service's main programs was an after-school homework assistance program for at-risk teenagers. When the program failed to deliver improved grades in its first year, Freridge sat the tutoring team down and looked for flaws.

"The trouble was there was a lack of communication," Freridge says in retrospect. "The kids were playing ‘Mom' against ‘Dad,' telling the tutors they'd already done their homework at school and telling the teachers they didn't need homework because of this special after-school program."

Freridge said the solution proved to be surprisingly simple: Her team worked up a checklist for the students to carry back and forth between school. Once it became a matter of getting teachers and counselors to sign off on the assignments, the number of missed assignments dropped and the overall grades rose.

"That was a case where you learn how to fix it based on the evaluation," Freridge says.

Two years later, while working for the Asian Youth Center in San Gabriel, Calif., Freridge came across a FSC's ad for a new executive director. Although she had missed out on the first interviews, the search committee's failure to find a suitable candidate created a window of opportunity.

Self-Described Underdog
"In many ways, I was an underdog," Freridge says of her decision to apply for the job. "I had never been an executive director. I was always a No. 2."

Then again, she already was working with budgets that dwarfed the FSC's $350,000 annual budget. When her resume survived the cut, she went through two phone interviews before finally getting the call to head over to the Chatsworth, Calif., offices and deliver a four-hour hiring presentation.

Jeffrey Douglas, an attorney and chairman of the FSC's Board of Directors, was a member of the executive search committee interviewing Freridge. He says it was Freridge's mixture of experience and confidence that won over the search team.

"She showed a remarkable command not only of the areas that we were interested in talking about but also for growth and organizational development, which was remarkably sophisticated," he said.

Douglas said the real test, however, didn't come until after the job acceptance. Introducing Freridge at an industry event, Douglas says they encountered a person he identifies only as "one of the powerful players in the industry." The grilling commenced immediately.

"As soon as the hands stopped being shaken, he started asking her questions like what are your top five priorities and how would you change the direction of the organization?" Douglas says.

Douglas recalls the moment as tense, the kind of thing most executives would have avoided with a quick joke if not a defensive response. Instead, Freridge responded with enthusiasm, bringing up the projections and strategies from her earlier presentation and throwing in a few more for good measure.

"She loved the experience," Douglas says. "When I saw that, I knew my wildest dreams were met."

Looking back on the same episode, Freridge said she welcomed the chance not just to outline her plans but also to send the message that she was willing to take the same level of heat FSC members deal with on a daily basis.

"That kind of communication from the membership is the most valuable thing a new executive director can get," Freridge said "FSC is here to serve its members. In order to do that, we must understand our members, their needs and how they think those needs can be fixed."

Such openness to criticism introduced Freridge to the organization's biggest weak spot: limited representation in the field of online pornography — the fastest-growing segment of the industry. Since taking over the helm, Freridge has raised enough money to cover not only her own salary but also the salaries of a half-dozen additional employees by bringing hundreds of new online companies into the FSC fold.

Major credit for that latter accomplishment goes to former Attorney General John Ashcroft who, prior to his departure from office in 2005, proposed a major expansion of governmental policing authority under U.S.C. 18 § 2257.

Ashcroft's plan, issued in response to the 2003 Amber Alert Law and quickly endorsed by Congress, extended the penalties for adult content producers who fail to keep adequate age-verification records for sexual performers.

Essentially a profit-killing gambit aimed at undercutting the fast-growing U.S. Internet porn industry, the proposal has since pushed the FSC to the center of the Internet censorship debate. Although efforts to kill the new regulations in their cradle via lobbying fell short, the FSC has successfully secured an injunction protecting its members from enforcement pending the outcome of its trial against the Justice Department in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado.

Freridge describes it as a simple case of "being in the right place at the right time." But Walters credits Freridge for recognizing the threat, seizing the initiative and, most importantly, using it to update the organization's media profile and industry reputation.

Gone is the FSC's image as a legal defense fund. In its place stands a proactive organization with a newly hired Washington D.C. lobbying firm, the Raben Group, eager to take on the industry's traditional enemies on their home playing field: the U.S. Congress.

"Michelle has catapulted this organization into national, if not international prominence, at a time when it was critical that the industry come together and unite against common foes," Walters said. "It's gone from primarily serving the producers and large distribution companies in California to a large national organization serving Internet companies across the country."

Now that membership has exploded, industry veterans like Kat Sunlove, a former FSC executive director, are hoping to build upon the momentum by establishing a lobbying presence in all 50 states, not to mention Washington, D.C.

Sunlove, a longtime Sacramento lobbyist who held the executive director slot during the 2003-2004 executive search, said such ambitions always were on the organizational "to do" list. It wasn't until the administration got its operational legs under Freridge, however, that it became easy to sell memberships on a 50-state strategy.

"I'm fond of saying Michelle's got that ‘vision thing,'" Sunlove says. "I think she really does have a good overall vision of where the organization can go and how she can get us there. All of that is a function of getting a good budget and shepherding that budget over time."

For Freridge, "vision" is just a synonym for communication. Not every problem facing the industry deserves top priority, she says, but her 18-month tenure with the organization has focused on making sure even the small problems get acknowledged. That way, as the short-term successes mount up, member optimism grows in lockstep.

"It takes positive energy to do this," she says. "I know that sounds flaky and New Age, but it's true. If you can't inspire, it's hard to get people to work around a cause and make it happen."