Discover more from The Eternally Radical Idea
Cancel Culture is happening on a historic scale, Part 1
Cancel Culture after 9/11 versus in response to the recent Hamas attack
AUTHOR’S NOTE: In our forthcoming book “The Canceling of the American Mind” (which is out TOMORROW!) we make the argument that Cancel Culture is on the scale of many of the worst “mass censorship” events in U.S. history. This series expands on that research from the Sedition Act of 1798 to 9/11.
People who say Cancel Culture is no big deal because the number of targeted people is “just a couple thousand” are showing a poor mastery of history. For example, while the Medieval period was formative for academic inquiry, laws and decrees against heresy established red lines that were deeply oppressive by modern standards. But, there are only about fifty known cases of academically related judicial proceedings for “erroneous teachings” throughout all of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. This does not mean medieval censorship was “no big deal”. Indeed, it can often only take punishing one person to chill the speech of millions.
–Jacob Mchangama, author of Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media
In the scheme of history, Cancel Culture is…odd. It breaks just about every pattern of censorship in American history. By “Cancel Culture,” my “Canceling of the American Mind” co-author Rikki Schlott and I mean the measurable uptick, beginning around 2014, of campaigns to get people fired, expelled, deplatformed, or otherwise punished for speech that is — or would be — protected by the First Amendment.
Unlike most other mass censorship events, Cancel Culture wasn’t spurred on by a large war, a national security threat, or a debate about pornography or obscenity — which are the usual reasons. Cancel Culture is also strange in that it’s happening in spite of strong legal speech protections. Keep in mind that until the First Amendment was “incorporated” in 1925, it had almost no meaningful legal force. Academic freedom only started to be understood as an area for special concern of the First Amendment in 1957.
Perhaps most significantly, Cancel Culture is also occurring at a startling scale when compared to previous mass censorship events. People often try to dismiss it by claiming that the number of people canceled is small. But that claim only shows a lack of knowledge of the history of freedom of speech and academic freedom in the US. In fact, many shameful censorial episodes involved only a relative handful of victims (think Lenny Bruce, Two Live Crew, or George Carlin).
But before we get into all of that, let’s put modern Cancel Culture on campuses into context and give you a sense of its scale in the modern age of First Amendment protected speech.
Campus Cancel Culture has no parallel since the law of student free speech and academic freedom was established
It’s astonishing that Cancel Culture exploded in academia in the past decade despite the fact that professors and students enjoy more speech protections than ever before. A professor’s right to academic freedom wasn’t fully established by the Supreme Court until 1967, and the free speech rights of university students came five years later.
In 1957's Sweezy v. New Hampshire, the Court struck down a "subversive activities" law, finding its use against Paul Sweezy, a college professor, had violated his "liberties in the areas of academic freedom and political expression." A decade later, in Keyishian v. Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York, the Court held that requiring state university professors to take a loyalty oath infringed on their "academic freedom, which is of transcendent value to all of us and not merely to the teachers concerned.”
In 1972, Healy v. James established freedom of association for a Students for Democratic Society chapter at Central Connecticut State University, and the following year Papish v. Board of Curators of the University of Missouri overturned the expulsion of a student who published a cartoon of police raping the Statue of Liberty, as well as other provocative speech.
Since these court cases ushered in the modern age of campus free speech and academic freedom, we know of no mass censorship events anywhere on the scale of Cancel Culture.
The closest thing to it came in the wake of 9/11. Even then, however, we’ve only been able to find three professors fired and a handful of students targeted for their speech. And in the end, all three of those professors were ultimately fired (or in one case, not rehired) for offenses that universities could legitimately punish.
Compare that to the last decade, where more than 1,000 campaigns to get professors punished for their First Amendment-protected speech have occurred. Nearly two-thirds of those campaigns succeeded, and almost 200 professors ended up being fired or forced out.
What’s worse, we know these statistics are a gross underestimate. One in six professors report having been disciplined or threatened with discipline for their speech, and one in three report having been pressured by colleagues to avoid researching controversial topics.
There is simply no mass censorship in higher education on par with Cancel Culture since the modern age of campus free speech — not even in the fallout of 9/11.
Comparing 9/11 to the campus response to support for Hamas
As I argued in my last post, the perception during 9/11 that academic freedom was threatened led to a period of somewhat better respect for academic freedom and free speech on campus. As responses to the recent Hamas terror attacks on Israel pile up, with students going on record supporting the violence, we’re already seeing a resurgence in that sentiment. Stanford, Harvard, and University of Florida have issued good statements on freedom of speech, and even proposed political neutrality.
As a point of comparison: One week after the Hamas attacks, we are seeing far fewer examples of campus censorship related to support for those attacks than we saw in the weeks after 9/11. This is despite the fact that very few students and faculty came out and said 9/11 was justified, whereas a large number of students and faculty have said they, for example, "hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence,” or otherwise showed support for Hamas. We are currently investigating one such case, but we do expect that number will increase.
I also mentioned in my last post that some of the most conspicuous threats — which will likely not materialize — are about defunding universities. This includes Rep. Derrick Van Orden of Wisconsin, who said he will seek “the removal of all public funding from this anti-American moss covered dump called Harvard,” and Rep. Mike Lawler of New York who argued that any institution that doesn’t discipline students for “anti-Semitic rants should lose any and all federal funds.”
From a “culture of free speech” perspective, it’s concerning that several business leaders are seeking to create a blacklist of students who joined the Harvard statement supporting the Hamas attacks. Private companies are free to hire whoever they want, of course, but business leaders should be cautious about screening against disapproved political speech.
After all, in 2020 and 2021, the country did indeed start to look like a place where every business had its own political point of view — and if you didn’t share that point of view, you could be canceled. If every employer did that, it would be bad for our democratic republic. The First Amendment protects your speech, but if you can’t hold a job while exercising it, those protections would have little practical meaning.
On CNN’s Smerconish on Saturday, I made the point that this behavior of defunding and blacklisting is Cancel Culture, by our definition. This may cause some cognitive dissonance, but it shouldn’t. It is possible to argue that you believe someone actually deserves to be canceled, and I sympathize with people who think the Harvard students went too far — but that doesn’t mean the proposed responses aren’t Cancel Culture. They absolutely are.
Thankfully, a lot of people have come out against blacklisting these students, including many critics of Cancel Culture, like Presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy.
Michael Smerconish also asked me about the case where a Stanford professor made Jewish students self identify, told them to take their belongings and get in the back of the room, called them “colonizers,” and claimed that more people have been killed by colonizers than Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.
As we at FIRE explain, there are multiple reasons why, if these allegations are true, this professor can be punished for his behavior, which includes outright discrimination.
So far, campuses are standing up to off-campus calls to cancel professors and students — but campuses always circle the wagons when it’s an outside threat. The real test will be when students, administrators, and faculty on campus demand a professor or student be punished for speech unpopular on campus, or one that challenges campus orthodoxies. Since 2014, faculty have succeeded over half (56%) of the times they’ve initiated sanction attempts against fellow faculty. Undergraduates have succeeded more than two thirds (68%) of the time, and admin have succeeded a whopping 94% of the times.
Unfortunately there’s cause for concern. Schools haven’t been doing a very good job at preserving free speech and academic freedom on campus this year. At Washington College in September, Princeton professor Robert P. George was shouted down while giving a speech — on the importance of free speech on campus, of all things — reportedly due to his stances on LGBTQ issues. Then of course there’s Judge Kyle Duncan at Stanford (my alma mater), whose talk was heckled and then co-opted by almost 1/5 of the entire law school student population and, shamefully, an administrator. At Virginia Commonwealth University, protesters disrupted a student group-sponsored event by Kristan Hawkins because of her pro-life stance. Instead of effectively controlling the protestors, campus police asked Hawkins to leave. Those are just a few examples, and they don’t bode well for this supposed rediscovery of the importance of free speech and academic freedom.
In the next part of this series, we will take a step back in time — and off campus — to America’s first free speech crisis: The Sedition Act of 1798.
Shot for the road
The time has come: “The Canceling of the American Mind” is out Tomorrow! As you secure yourself (and your friends, and your friends’ friends) a copy, check out this quick clip where Rikki and I make the case for why you (and your friends, and your friends’ friends) should buy it:
Thanks for reading The Eternally Radical Idea! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.