Fight “Cancel Culture” on Campus

Universities keep crumpling under pressure. But free inquiry isn’t up for negotiation.

College leaders rarely get it right when it comes to campus free-speech controversies. Too often their responses are confused, slow, ambivalent, contradictory or downright illiberal.

Take, for example, St. John’s University in Queens, New York. It advertises “freedom of inquiry.” But earlier this fall, it found a professor guilty of “bias, discrimination, and harassment” for asking his introductory history class if the positives of expanding global trade in the 15th and 16th centuries justified the negatives. The slave trade was part of this phenomenon, so some people judged the question off-limits, and a group of self-declared radicals petitioned to have him fired. Now, adjunct professor Richard Taylor, a former 9/11 first responder, cannot even serve as a guest lecturer about 9/11—he’s barred from teaching.

Then there’s the case from earlier this year at Babson College. Administrators demonstrated that they understood comedy as poorly as they understood free expression when it came to Professor Asheen Phansey, who made a private, satirical joke on Facebook. He was responding to President Donald Trump’s threat to bomb 52 Iranian locations, including cultural sites. “In retaliation,” Phansey quipped, “Ayatollah Khomenei should tweet a list of 52 sites of beloved American cultural heritage that he would bomb. Um… Mall of America? …Kardashian residence?” The administrators fired him.

College leaders please nobody when they try to please everybody in a cancel campaign. So why try? Instead, why not defend the core enlightenment mission of a college, which the University of Chicago describes as the “discovery, improvement, and dissemination of knowledge”? That language appears in the Kalven Report, which the university commissioned in 1967 to address the tension between open inquiry and activism in a university environment. The report states that “a university must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry and maintain an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures.”

Living up to these values may be hard but, with sufficient courage, it’s possible. Perhaps the best example of a college president with backbone when faced with an effort to banish a professor comes from 20 years ago, before “cancel culture” was part of our popular lexicon.

In December 2000, the renowned poet and University of Alaska Professor Linda McCarriston published a poem called “Indian Girls,” about alcoholism and the sexual abuse of children in Native American communities. Students protested, including some in McCarriston’s class. They argued that the poem was insulting and stereotyping of Native communities. Then came the investigation. That is, until the university president, Mark R. Hamilton, heard about it.

Hamilton was a retired U.S. Army major general who brokered peace negotiations in El Salvador and Somalia. He was also an admirer of the First Amendment’s protection for freedom of speech, and knew it was his job as a government official leading a public university system to guarantee that protection.

Besides the “Indian Girls” imbroglio, there was also a controversy around an invited campus speaker, and an open letter from faculty members written to President Bill Clinton against a proposal to drill within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The open letter prompted Alaska’s governor to call Hamilton to complain: What are you going to do about it?

Responding to all three matters at once, Hamilton wrote an open letter of his own. “What I want to make clear and unambiguous is that responses to complaints or demands for action regarding constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of speech CANNOT BE QUALIFIED,” he wrote.

“Attempts to assuage anger or to demonstrate concern by qualifying our support for free speech serve to cloud what must be a clear message. Noting that, for example, ‘The University supports the right to free speech, but we intend to check into this matter,’ or ‘The University supports the right of free speech, but I have asked Dean X or Provost Y to investigate the circumstances,’ is unacceptable. There is nothing to ‘check into,’ nothing ‘to investigate.’ ”

Case closed.

For years, we at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) have worked to defend free speech and academic freedom on campus. Two observations we can make are: 1) colleges used to get in front of these controversies faster and more categorically than they do now; and 2) when they do remove the possibility of punishment and assert their values from the beginning, the demands tend to peter out, often quickly. 

Qualifying free-speech defenses, we find, only prolongs the fight and emboldens would-be censors. What’s more, leaders at public colleges need to be careful: Investigating protected speech can result in legal liability. As the University of Alaska president Hamilton wrote, when it comes to speech protected by the First Amendment, “There is nothing to ‘check into,’ nothing ‘to investigate.’”

While rarer, we do see shades of Hamilton’s response from some of today’s more courageous college presidents. Last year, the president of University of the Arts in Philadelphia, David Yager, rejected calls to fire Professor Camille Paglia over her statements surrounding the #MeToo movement and transgender people: “Across our nation it is all too common that opinions expressed that differ from another’s—especially those that are controversial—can spark passion and even outrage, often resulting in calls to suppress that speech,” he wrote in a letter to the university community. “That simply cannot be allowed to happen.” 

The would-be censors called his letter “wildly ignorant.” But the controversy soon fizzled and the demands stopped, much as they did at the University of Alaska. Yager’s letter, like Hamilton’s, left no room for compromise.

Most recently, the University of Chicago president, Robert Zimmer, wrote a community-wide email of his own, rejecting calls to punish a geophysical sciences professor, Dorian Abbot, for videos he had made critiquing diversity initiatives. A total of 129 students, alumni, and staff wrote an open letter to his faculty alleging that Abbot’s videos “threaten the safety and belonging of all underrepresented groups” and “represent an aggressive act towards the research and teaching communities of which Professor Abbot is a member.” 

To this, Zimmer wrote to the campus community: “The University does not limit the comments of faculty members, mandate apologies, or impose other disciplinary consequences for such comments, unless there has been a violation of University policy or the law.” (Under normal circumstances, that last clause about “University Policy” might worry us, but Chicago receives a “green-light” rating from FIRE, which means it does not maintain any policies that threaten free expression.)

Sometimes, college leaders—or, more often, those at the center of the controversy—make matters worse by apologizing for hurt feelings. In a perfect world, a heartfelt, genuine apology would settle matters and placate the mob. But during a cancel campaign, apologies tend to be received as confessions that you are a witch deserving of further persecution. 

Research backs this up. A 2019 study of whether apologizing works found that “when a prominent figure apologizes for a controversial statement, individuals are either unaffected or become more likely to desire that the individual be punished.” The scholar Cass Sunstein, of Harvard Law School, conducted a similar study and found that “an apology tended to decrease rather than to increase overall support for those who said or did things that many people consider offensive.”

So what is the antidote to campus cancel campaigns? A strong, unequivocal defense of the right to free inquiry and expression after the campaign begins is important. But much of the groundwork for a successful defense begins before the campaign. Here are three vital practices.

  • Stop violating the law. Public colleges in the United States are bound by the First Amendment, yet 85% of them maintain speech codes that restrict speech protected by the Constitution. We have a group of lawyers whose full-time job it is to work collegially with campus administrators to help them fix restrictive speech codes. We are happy to help.

  • Commit and recommit to free speech and inquiry. Faculty and administrators should seek out opportunities to enshrine protections for free speech and inquiry in campus policy. These policies should be adopted publicly and conspicuously. The Chicago Statement—a freedom-of-expression declaration from the University of Chicago in 2014—is one such policy that colleges can easily adopt and adapt, and 78 have already done so. Same goes for the aforementioned Kalven Report. (There’s a reason student survey data finds the University of Chicago to be the number one school for free speech in the country.)

  • Teach students about free speech from day one. Principles of free speech can run counter to our moral intuitions, and may be taken for granted. But the principles are essential if colleges are to fulfill their core missions. Sadly, few incoming students are aware of these principles and their role in the larger project of human knowledge. Only a handful of colleges teach them in their orientation programming. That is why we joined with New York University’s First Amendment Watch to create a series of orientation modules and videos that are ready for colleges to use right away.

Fighting cancel culture isn’t easy for campus leaders. It’s a fight that seems to get more challenging every day. But, while the war might be neverending, individual battles can be won. Courageous leaders have shown us a way—it’s up to others to follow it.

Greg Lukianoff is president and chief executive and Nico Perrino is vice president for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). Both are producers of the recently released free-speech documentary, Mighty Ira: A Civil Liberties Story.