I've already said here in Persuasion that I'm a women's studies professor who trained and taught in a traditional discipline. I'm also currently under EEO investigation in my institution for essentially creating a hostile environment for racial and gender minority students in a class by talking about things my students disapproved of (note: most who complained were “allies” of people of color/transgender students, not members of those groups). It’s useful to know that many young adult students and faculty are opponents of free speech, which they see as a dangerous rationale and shield for bigotry. Once you know this, you expect, e.g., the outcry against the Harper's letter on justice and open debate that seemed to take so many by surprise.

In the spirit of truthfulness, I suspect that a higher percentage of faculty who are encouraging—indeed, inciting—these developments are women than men. This is not to say that the majority of women faculty are perpetrating illiberal and anti-intellectual doctrines. It’s just to concede it’s no accident that illiberalism and anti-intellectualism have sprung from and swept through a set of fields and subfields, especially in the Humanities, where large numbers of women faculty are to be found. I weep.

Essays like this might be helpful for some faculty who are “scared” (as one academic described himself in an online essay some time ago) of their students. A significant literature now criticizes what’s going on in the academy. Virtually all of that literature can be helpful, but virtually all of it also gets something wrong that an insider could correct. I recommend Greg and Jonathan Haidt’s excellent book, The Coddling of the American Mind, even though the authors make a minor error in trying to account for the source of “safetyism.” It’s also useful to bear in mind that these kinds of challenges to speech and academic freedom are preemptive: putting the fear of god into heretics, apostates, and all those in need of reeducation.

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The University of Chicago has a long history of support civil liberties and freedom of speech. George Anastapio taught many years there and at Loyola University in Chicago. In the 1950s, Anastapio became famous in civil liberty circles for refusing to answer questions about whether or how he was affiliated with the Communist Party USA, as a condition for being admitted to the Illinois Bar. Although he appealed all the way to the US Supreme Court, the Court upheld lower court rulings in favor of the Illinois Bar. Hugo Black was the only justice who dissented at the time. I took a course from Anastapio shortly before his death in 2014. At that time, this icon of resistance to loyalty oaths was decrying the growing narrowness of the left, what we now call cancel culture.

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I’ve made use of FIRE and believe it is a uniquely important organization. I’m also in agreement with this article. But one obvious problem keeps nagging at me, and once again it seems to be avoided − probably because it’s difficult. But I think we need to face it.

Where is the line between legal and illegal speech?

Reading Wikipedia, it seems that speech causing imminent danger − yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre − may be illegal.

There have, in fact, been hundreds killed in this way. But present politics adds urgency to this question for two reasons. (1) The new identity politicos declare that anything they disagree with puts them in imminent danger. Who is to decide? (2) Yesterday’s lead article in the online Atlantic, “Facebook Is a Doomsday Machine” makes the case that completely unregulated speech on Facebook is not only a danger but may be the most destructive force on earth.


While I think the Atlantic is likely exaggerating, I do take seriously the dangers of Facebook, and we know it has played a role in large-scale terrorist organizing.

FIRE does provide “videos for universities to utilize when teaching incoming students about their free speech rights.”


But they seem to demand that I be associated with a university before I can see them.

So my plea is this. Would FIRE, or someone, explain clearly and simply, where we draw the line between protected and illegal speech, and how is that line to be drawn.

I think this Persuasion Community magazine would be the perfect place for such an explanation.

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While I am 100% onboard with the message of your article, I would slightly, and in a very friendly way, push back on qualifying the struggle against cancel culture on campus as "neverending." This is one of the primary issues with crusades/jihads/struggles; they are always qualified as neverending purity wars. If we are to move against these illiberal undertakings, we probably want to move away from the totalitarian framing, even if it is on the level of language games. Thank you for your work with FIRE!

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You give me hope FIRE. Thank you for your work.

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It's so good to know about this organization and their work. As a linguistics professor, I usually teach a topic that involves talking about taboo words. It's important in those discussions to be clear that talking about a word (also called "mentioning" it) is not the same as using it. But the mention/use distinction, an important one in the fields of linguistics and philosophy of language, is lost in this cancel-culture time, and professors are under threat. This semester, I took the unit out of my curriculum. My students have been short-changed.

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We support FIRE but regret that its mission is necessary.

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Thank you. The restrictive academic and intellectual atmosphere on college campuses spreads dark clouds all along my view of our future (in the US). I began donating to FIRE this year to, hopefully, help in a small way to permit light through those clouds. I'm not optimistic.

Frankly, I now believe we (a) ought to do much less subsidization of unproductive and academically restrictive fields, and (b) encourage most folks towards more efficient means of education (eg certification programs, etc.).

Academics (not all, but high proportions in particular Humanities disciplines) have disrespected their privileges (in a most ironic fashion) while living off the backs (via subsidized loans) of the very people upon whom they spray absurd moralistic condemnations.

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Most universities that I know of have some version of seeking truth or discovering knowledge as part of their vision or mission statement (whether or not they honestly live up to that is a different matter, of course). I am curious any mainstream US colleges/universities have anything in their statements that could be perceived as accepting/approving of cancel culture in some form.

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