University of Chicago no longer #1 in free speech rankings

September 21, 2021 • 2:05 pm

For a long time the University of Chicago has been #1 among all rated American colleges and university’s in the free-speech ranking of FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education).

I’ve been beefing for over a year about my school’s unwillingness to enforce its own speech rules, though, by allowing departments to make official pronouncements on politics, morality, and ideology—an explicit violation of the Kalven Report. This is one of our foundational principles along with our Principles of Free Expression, which have been adopted by more than fifty enlightened schools. (See my reports on U of C’s violations and about Kalven here.)

Now, and very sadly, the University of Chicago has fallen to second place in Freedom of Speech, behind Claremont-McKenna College in California. Mind you, we still get the approved “green light” overall, and we’re not that far behind Claremont-McKenna (they get 72.7 out of 100 points; we get 70.43), and this is out of 154 ranked schools.

I’m also sure that my beefing had nothing to do with this change, though they may have taken into account Chicago’s violations of Kalven. But it’s always been a selling point for our school to proclaim itself #1 in free speech, as there’s a group of parents and students who—mirabile dictulike that! Perhaps our new President, Paul Alivisatos, a chemist who was executive vice chancellor and provost at UC Berkeley, and who began his term September 1, can pull us back to the top spot.

For your interest, here are the top ten schools for free speech, as well as the bottom ten, who deserve raspberries. (You can see the data by clicking on the school at the link I just gave.)

  1. Claremont-McKenna University
  2. The University of Chicago
  3. University of New Hampshire (Main Campus)
  4. Emory University
  5. Florida State University
  6. Purdue University (Main Campus)
  7. University of Maryland, College Park
  8. University of California, Los Angeles
  9. University of Arizona
  10. The College of William and Mary.

I’m chuffed that I taught at two of these (#2 and #7) and got my undergraduate degree from #10.

Here are the big losers:

WARNING RATING (no number but a bad sign.  Pepperdine University
148. Bates College
149. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
WARNING RATING: St Louis University
150. Boston College
151. Wake Forest University
152. Louisiana State University
153. Marquette University
WARNING RATING: Baylor University
154. DePauw University (score: 50.8/100)

Each college’s evaluation also has some student comments; here’s one from the University of Chicago, but it wasn’t my comment as I didn’t teach that year.

“I am religious and in a few science courses Professors have made direct statements claiming that religion is equivalent to fairytales those who believe it are stupid and that science disproves religion. I did not feel as though I could argue with them on this despite my disagreement with their opinion.”
– Class of 2022
To be sure, this sounds dubious to me, as I don’t know anybody at the U of C who would make a statement like that to an undergraduate class. But it is possible. And if it happened, the professor should have kept his/her mouth shut.

Matt Taibbi on National Public Radio’s trashing of free speech

September 1, 2021 • 9:15 am

It’s dispiriting to start the day dealing with an NPR piece like this, in which the New York branch produced a nationally-broadcast 50-minute discussion of free speech featuring no defenders of free speech. Instead, we hear from several guests who all advocate (without explicitly saying so) some kind censorship.

The issue, of course, is hate speech, which currently is permitted by the courts with a few carved-out exceptions (speech designed to cause predictable and imminent physical violence, harassment in the workplace, physical threats, and so on). The guests (see below) don’t like just those few exceptions, and think they should be expanded to deal with speech that causes psychological harm (i.e., offense) recognized as equivalent to physical harm. After all, psychological harm does produce physiological reactions. Ergo, they’re the same and should be treated the same under the law.

The discussion includes several mischaracterizations of the First Amendment (see Taibbi’s beef below), including workplace harassment seen as presently permitted free speech, even though it isn’t. And they go through past litigation by the courts the yielded the current construal of the First Amendment, but somehow manage to imply that these litigated cases show that perhaps the First Amendment isn’t so clear cut, and could use some more tweaking. Well, it isn’t clear cut, but I, for one, find the courts’ winnowing pretty damn good, and would be very wary of cutting back further on free speech. That would include prohibiting “hate speech”, which, after all, is some people’s “free speech”.

In the end, one has little idea of how or even whether the guests would alter the First Amendment. I get the sense that they want the amendment reexamined and changed, but they won’t go so far as to say that openly. (After all, it’s altering the Bill of Rights!) Instead, they make noises about “making a better world”, assuming that this will get rid of the speech that Andrew Marantz (the main speaker) finds offensive.  But there will always be bigots, as well as those calling for social change that other people find offensive. So yes, of course we should become less hateful and more empathic, but this show, after all, was about freedom of speech and the First Amendment, not a World of Love. The show is curiously inconclusive, except that you get the impression that all four participants want some kind of censorship. Have a listen to the show below, and see if I’m wrong (click on screenshot) below.

First, though, there’s this blurb on the site from WNYC:

“The right to throw a punch ends at the tip of someone’s nose.” It’s the idea that underlies American liberties — but does it still fit in 2021? We look back at our country’s radical — and radically inconsistent — tradition of free speech. Plus, a prophetic philosopher predicts America 75 years after Trump.

1. Andrew Marantz [@andrewmarantz], author of Anti-Social: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation — and our guest host for this hour — explains what he sees as the problem with free speech absolutism. Listen.

2. John Powell [@profjohnapowell], law professor at UC Berkeley, P.E. Moskowitz [@_pem_pem], author of The Case Against Free Speech: The First Amendment, Fascism, and the Future of Dissent, and Susan Benesch [@SusanBenesch], Director of the Dangerous Speech Project, on our complicated legal right to speak. Listen.

3. Andrew and Brooke discuss the philosopher Richard Rorty, whose work can teach us much about where the present approach to speech might take us, as a nation. Listen.

Throughout the show you’ll hear free-speech advocates characterized as “free speech absolutists”, although no advocate of the First Amendment, including me, thinks that all speech should be permitted. “Free speech absolutists” should its place beside other misguided pejorative terms like “fundamentalist atheists”.

And although Marantz makes fun of the slippery-slope argument, this is not something to be laughed off. If you start banning speech that offends others, who is to be the censor?  All the good liberals on the show think that The Decider will be another good liberal, but as we know from Trump and his minions, this is not the case. They want to ban speech that many liberals favor, as in the Republican-dominated drive to ban “critical race theory” (CRT) from being taught in schools. But, for example, CRT could simply be construed by teachers as an honest examination of slavery and of the genocide of Native Americans, which kids really do need to learn. Yet the laws being passed by state legislatures might ban even that.

And, as I’ve mentioned—as does Taibbi below—limitations on free speech were used to suppress the civil rights movement in the Fifties and Sixties. This is why it’s dangerous to make the argument that “offensive” or “hate” speech should be banned, restricted, or even attacked. As Taibbi says,

The most important problem of speech regulation, as far as speech advocates have been concerned, has always been the identity of the people setting the rules. If there are going to be limits on speech, someone has to set those limits, which means some group is inherently going to wield extraordinary power over another. Speech rights are a political bulwark against such imbalances, defending the minority not only against government repression but against what Mill called “the tyranny of prevailing opinion.”

This isn’t new; it’s a point that Christopher Hitchens made repeatedly in his defense of free speech.

But I’m jumping the gun. In his latest Substack column, which you can read for free (but do consider subscribing), Matt Taibbi comes down hard on NPR for this disingenuous show. Click on the screenshot below to read his shortish piece:

I’ll give a couple of quotes by Taibbi from this excellent piece, and wind up with a kvetch about how liberals seemingly want make society less liberal, which is what will happen when “offensive” speech gets banned.

What Taibbi says here is absolutely on the mark:

The guests for NPR’s just-released On The Media episode about the dangers of free speech included Andrew Marantz, author of an article called, “Free Speech is Killing Us”; P.E. Moskowitz, author of “The Case Against Free Speech”; Susan Benesch, director of the “Dangerous Speech Project”; and Berkeley professor John Powell, whose contribution was to rip John Stuart Mill’s defense of free speech in On Liberty as “wrong.”

That’s about right for NPR, which for years now has regularly congratulated itself for being a beacon of diversity while expunging every conceivable alternative point of view.

I always liked Brooke Gladstone, but this episode of On The Media was shockingly dishonest. The show was a compendium of every neo-authoritarian argument for speech control one finds on Twitter, beginning with the blanket labeling of censorship critics as “speech absolutists” (most are not) and continuing with shameless revisions of the history of episodes like the ACLU’s mid-seventies defense of Nazi marchers at Skokie, Illinois.

And, like Taibbi, I was stunned by the argument made by Powell about the ACLU defending the Nazi Party’s right to demonstrate in Skokie in 1977. Powell construes the whole thing as a case of psychological harm to Nazis as well as Jews, since had the Nazis been prohibited from marching, they would have been psychologically harmed. Ergo, if you think it’s not ok for Jews to suffer psychological damage by watching Nazis march, it’s also not okay for Nazis to be harmed by prohibiting their marching. That is about as disingenuous as you can get.

Taibbi points out the fatal flaw in this reasoning (his emphasis below):

I was stunned by Marantz and Powell’s take on Brandenburg v. Ohio, our current legal standard for speech, which prevents the government from intervening except in cases of incitement to “imminent lawless action”:

MARANTZ: Neo-Nazi rhetoric about gassing Jews, that might inflict psychological harm on a Holocaust survivor, but as long as there’s no immediate incitement to physical violence, the government considers that protected… The village of Skokie tried to stop the Nazis from marching, but the ACLU took the case to the Supreme Court, and the court upheld the Nazis’ right to march.

POWELL: The speech absolutists try to say, “You can’t regulate speech…” Why? “Well, because it would harm the speaker. It would somehow truncate their expression and their self-determination.” And you say, okay, what’s the harm? “Well, the harm is, a psychological harm.” Wait a minute, I thought you said psychological harms did not count?

This is not remotely accurate as a description of what happened in Skokie. People like eventual ACLU chief Ira Glasser and lawyer David Goldberger had spent much of the sixties fighting for the civil rights movement. The entire justification of these activists and lawyers — Jewish activists and lawyers, incidentally, who despised what neo-Nazi plaintiff Frank Collin stood for — was based not upon a vague notion of preventing “psychological harm,” but on a desire to protect minority rights.

In fighting the battles of the civil rights movement, Glasser, Goldberger and others had repeatedly seen in the South tactics like the ones used by localities in and around Chicago with regard to those neo-Nazis, including such ostensibly “constitutional” ploys like requiring massive insurance bonds of would-be marchers and protesters.

. . . .By the end of the segment, Marantz and Gladstone seemed in cheerful agreement they’d demolished any arguments against “getting away from individual rights and the John Stuart Mill stuff.” They felt it more appropriate to embrace the thinking of a modern philosopher like Marantz favorite Richard Rorty, who believes in “replacing the whole framework” of society, which includes “not doing the individual rights thing anymore.”

It was all a near-perfect distillation of the pretensions of NPR’s current target audience, which clearly feels we’ve reached the blue-state version of the End of History, where all important truths are agreed upon, and there’s no longer need to indulge empty gestures to pluralism like the “marketplace of ideas.”

Indeed, the “progressive” liberal “marketplace of ideas”, like a store in early Soviet Russia, stocks only one brand. That’s why John McWhorter, who wants to introduce another brand into the discourse on race, has been attacked so strongly. There’s a right way and a wrong way to think, and we needn’t even consider the “wrong” way.

Ironically, it’s the Left that’s been the most potent defender of free speech, and now it’s the Left that is oh-so-gently trying to get rid of it. The Right, of course, is far from exculpated on this issue, but if you review the last five years of FIRE’s “disinvitation database”, which chronicles campus attempts to stifle speech or deplatform speakers, a strong majority of the incidents come from the Left.

When NPR starts saying that we need to start hacking away at the First Amendment, or devise a new Constitution without “individual rights”, you know it’s time to cancel your subscription. You can use the money to subscribe to Taibbi’s site ($50/year), where you won’t hear this kind of odious palaver.

h/t: Cate

Haverford College earns disgrace as FIRE’s “speech code of the month”

July 4, 2021 • 9:30 am

Haverford College, a very ritzy school in the eponymous Pennsylvania town, is one of the wokest (or should I say “most progressive”) schools in America, and not in a good way. Last year I reported how they caved in to ludicrous student demands. Let’s reprise:

On December 5 I described the meltdown happening at ritzy Haverford College (tuition: $57,000 per year, total expenses $76,000 per year) following a police shooting of a black man in nearby Philadelphia. The students went on strike and issued a long series of demands to the College, as outlined in my article and in an informative piece in Quillette by Jonathan Kay.

What was remarkable about the Haverford protests was how readily the administration caved in to the student demands, which comprised the usual laundry list of no punishments for strikers, more money for diversity initiatives, defunding the police, changing the curriculum, the institution of pass-fail grades, the creation of ethnically segregated spaces, and getting rid of the President (he’s now resigned). It seems that the students suddenly discovered the university’s “systemic racism”, which wasn’t a problem before the shooting (see Kay’s article about the harmony that used to reign at Haverford), and used this discovery to try getting everything they wanted.

The response of Haverford administrators, who cringingly abased themselves online, was in strong contrast to the response of nearby Swarthmore College (equally ritzy), whose black President, Valerie Smith, basically told the students to bugger off and stop making anonymous demands instead of engaging in civil discourse.

And, by and large, the Haverford students won. An article at the Haverford Clerk, the College’s independent student newspaper (click on screenshot below) recounts the administration’s surrender and links to a list of the students’ demands and the administration’s item-by-item responses, with the vast majority of those responses being “yes, we will.”

See here for more. Based on the school’s speech-chilling Honor Code, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) previously rated the school “yellow”, meaning there were restrictions on free speech. Haverford is a private school, and doesn’t have to adhere to the First Amendment, but has an official Academic Freedom policy that guarantees a student’s right to “speak or write freely on any subject.”

It turns out that Haverford doesn’t really abide by that policy. As FIRE discovered, the school also has a new policy whereby “microaggressions” and disrespectful speech are violations of the Honor Code, which puts that Code at odds with school policy. Because of that, FIRE has named Haverford’s policy its “speech code of the month”, and that’s not an honor!

Click on the screenshot to read more, though I’ve summarized the salient stuff below:

Here’s a FIRE video about the new amendment:

Here’s an excerpt from Haverford’s new amendment to its Honor Code, given on the FIRE website:

The prohibition on microaggressions is far clearer in the amended version, with added text bolded:

In particular, we recognize that acts of discrimination, microaggression, and harassment, including, but not limited to, acts of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, ableism, tokenism, cultural insensitivity, discrimination based on citizenship status, discrimination based on religion, and discrimination based on national origin, accent, dialect, or usage of the English language are devoid of respect and therefore, by definition, violate this Code. We understand that these discriminatory acts can take many forms, and smaller acts such as microaggressions are also devoid of respect and thus violate the Code. …

We also recognize that a person’s there are a range of political opinions at Haverford College, are necessarily intertwined with their values and outlook, and thus influence their practices. These practices may violate the Honor Code. As such, Thus, we expect that when expressing or encountering others’ political beliefs, students will must be respectful of community standards as befits adherence to this Code. when expressing political opinions. As the Social Honor Code applies to all of our interactions at Haverford, engagement in political discourse falls within its jurisdiction, and political beliefs may not be used to excuse behavior that violates the Code. If we find that our political beliefs perpetuate discrimination, we are obligated to re-evaluate them as we would any of our beliefs that perpetuate discrimination. . . . 

[C]onfronted students weaponizing the Code’s expectation of respect in order to silence and/or invalidate the experiences of harmed parties—including invalidating experiences of harm by claiming discrimination against a privileged identity (e.g., claims of reverse-racism) or refusing to reflect on their actions—is a violation of the Code. Using one’s political beliefs to justify disrespectful or discriminatory words or actions is also a violation of the Code.

Microaggression is of course is a slippery concept, for not only does Haverford not even give a definition of “microaggression,” but, as FIRE says, “the addition of the language that students ‘must be respectful of community standards when expressing political opinions’ turns the Honor Code into a civility code.”  “Disrespect” and beliefs that “perpetuate discrimination”, are not forms of protected speech under the First Amendment, but are slippery. Is criticism of Israel or Palestine now a microaggression? (Even the words “dirty Jew” should be protected!). What about criticism of Black Lives Matter? The tenets of Islam or Catholicism? As we know, what constitutes “harmful” and “violent” speech has expanded beyond all reason, and Haverford’s code has expanded to include much of what we want to be protected.

Further, the body that adjudicates the school’s Honor Code violations comprises entirely students, and, as FIRE adds, “being brought before a jury of your peers to defend your protected speech is punishment in itself.” In other words, the school allows protected speech to be punished, and violates its own promise of adhering in principle to the First Amendment.

In light of this amendment, FIRE says they’re changing Haverford’s rating, once the changes are on the school’s website, to the worst category for free speech, the dreaded “red-light rating.” I wouldn’t send my kid to a $74,000/year school so they would have their speech monitored and regulated by other students.

In the meantime, at the page above (or click below), you can register a complaint with Haverford by filling in the form that goes to Haverford’s President.

The University of Oklahoma teaches instructors how to make students shut up and swallow an accepted ideology

June 24, 2021 • 9:41 am

This new article from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) tells a dire tale that is documented with a recording.

On April 14, the University ran a professional development workshop for grad students and instructors dealing with “Anti-Racist Rhetoric & Pedagogies”. In this workshop, the instructors were taught how to make students shut up about certain topics, steer them and bend them to a woke ideology and, most offensively, how to threaten students with lower marks (or reporting to the administration) if they didn’t write the right stuff in their assignments. Click on the screenshot to read (and hear):

Of course it’s not illegal under the First Amendment to prevent students from disrupting classes, nor is it illegal to make them regurgitate material you’ve taught them, even if they don’t accept it. (In my evolution classes here, for instance, I sometimes had some creationist students, but they were graded on their ability to answer questions under the assumption that what I taught them was true. But I never made them accept evolution if they rejected it.)

Here’s the one-hour video of the U of O Zoom session. FIRE has highlighted it with time stamps certain parts that are worrying:

FIRE’s quotes are indented:

The workshop in question trains instructors on how to eliminate disfavored but constitutionally protected expression from the classroom and guide assignments and discussion into preferred areas — all for unambiguously ideological and viewpoint-based reasons. FIRE’s concerns are further compounded by the University of Oklahoma’s brazen and unconstitutional track record of putting individual rights out to pasture.

. . .But it’s not just racism the presenters encourage participants to root out.

One of the workshop leaders, Kelli Pyron Alvarez, explained in the recording how undergraduate students in one of her introductory English courses are “a little bit more emboldened to be racist” (17:17). To combat this, she forbids huge swaths of classroom speech, including “derogatory remarks, critiques, and hate speech,” as well as “white supremacist ideas or sources,” unless the student is using those sources to dismantle racism.

If you are wondering what sources or ideas are off limits because they fall into Pyron Alvarez’s subjective categories of white supremacist sources or “derogatory remarks” — well, she never specifies, so you should be.

Making a mistake can cost you: “If they use any of those things, if any of those come through in their writing or in their comments, I will call them out on it.” (18:20)

And if it happens again, “report them.”

Report them! To whom? Remember, as a state school, the University of Oklahoma must adhere to the principles of the First Amendment, and cannot penalize students for simply believing things that the instructors frown on. But wait! There’s more!

. . . Fairly early in the training, Pyron Alvarez addresses the potential reluctance faculty members might have toward putting a heavy hand on student speech. “One of the fears is that we’re going to get in trouble for this, right?,” she says. “Like we can’t tell students that they can’t say something in class. But we can! And let me tell you how.” (17:45)

Pyron Alvarez’ fellow workshop leader Kasey Woody later goes into some detail on how instructors can “steer” students away from “problematic territory” to accomplish this. (46:01)

“I, in this case, usually look for my students who might be, like, entertaining the idea of listening to a problematic argument. Then I say, ‘we don’t have to listen to that.’” (45:45)

That’s right — even thinking about listening to a disfavored argument is apparently to be discouraged.

Woody later reassures the instructors that they won’t face consequences for censoring students: “You do not need to worry about repercussions at any degree in the university if you are responding to a student who is using problematic language in the classroom.” (49:42)

And who gives them the green light to censor OU students? According to Pyron Alvarez, that permission comes from the highest court in the country.

“The Supreme Court has actually upheld that hate speech, derogatory speech, any of the -isms do not apply in the classroom because they do not foster a productive learning environment. And so, as instructors we can tell our students: ‘no, you do not have the right to say that. Stop talking right now’, right?” (20:05)

Now that is just wrong. The Supreme Court has said that speech on school grounds that causes “material and substantial disruption” of school functions can be punished. But what doesn’t “foster a productive learning environment” now becomes the judgment of the U of O instructors, and “material and substantial disruption” doesn’t seem to be what the OU trainers are addressing here—unless they adhere to the false mantra that “offensive speech is violence.”


Some of the responses from workshop participants indicated that they understood how what they were being told to do was out of the ordinary, and expressed reservations about it. One workshop participant asked whether instructors are doing a disservice to their students by censoring certain topics. The participant asked how to identify problematic arguments and whether, for example, a student should be able to examine if the Black Lives Matter movement should refrain from property damage. In response, Pyron Alvarez suggests telling students to “re-adjust” their topic if they’re “bordering” on being offensive. (53:05)

That’s not advice on what arguments might be effective — that’s “advice” on what arguments are politically acceptable.

It goes on, and doesn’t get better. FIRE wrote the University about this, and at first they refused to respond. Finally, yesterday UO Chief Diversity officer Kesha Keith responded, but it was a non-response. Keith asserted that the University “unequivocally values free expression and the diversity of all viewpoints”, but that’s not what the video shows. Keith also says that participation in this session was voluntary, but instructors are required to attend at least two of nine workshops.

On April 8 I reported that when FIRE wanted to see this Zoom session, the U of O stipulated very specific conditions:

The university’s March 23 response — more than four months after our request — said that FIRE would be permitted to view the training materials, but only in person on OU’s campus in Norman, Oklahoma. In other words, in order to view public records, the University of Oklahoma would require a FIRE staff member to fly across the country (FIRE is based in Philadelphia) during a global pandemic. That’s not exactly a transparency-friendly approach to public records, and it all but ensures that public records remain private.

It looks as if the U of O will continue this training—training that is effectively propaganda and also involves lying about student rights.

What can you do about it? At the bottom of the FIRE page is this form, and all you have to do is fill in your name and email address and press “send”, which will send the message at the bottom. I’ve already done that.  Read FIRE’s report, and if you agree that this kind of training  violates the rights of students, fill in the form and click. The only way we can stop the propagandizing of students and the discouragement of “speech” that the instructors don’t like is to speak up!


The message that’s automatically send under your name.

I am concerned about the state of free expression and freedom of conscience at the University of Oklahoma. Multiple instructor training sessions indicate that student and faculty individual rights are in jeopardy.

OU is a public institution, obligated to respect student and faculty rights. We call on you to ensure that individual rights are not violated at Oklahoma’s flagship institution.

Demanding ideological uniformity is a violation of students’ constitutional rights.

Supreme Court rules for cheerleader accused of obscene and disruptive speech

June 23, 2021 • 12:30 pm

I’m told by reader Ken that a number of important Supreme Court rulings are coming out today, and this appears to be the first. By an 8-1 vote, with Clarence Thomas dissenting (see full opinion below), the court showed near unanimity in ruling that Brandi Levy, a Pennsylvania high school student, had not violated the First Amendment by sending out a Snapchat message when she was off school grounds. Click to read the NYT story:

Ninth grader Levy, upset that she didn’t make the varsity cheerleading squad, put out a short Snapchat message with her middle finger upraised, saying, “Fuck school;” “Fuck softball;” Fuck cheer”; and “Fuck everything.”  Although, like all Snapchat messages, it disappeared on its own, someone took a screenshot and called it to the school’s attention. The school suspended Levy from cheerleading for a year, arguing that her speech caused “chaos” and disrupted the “teamlike environment.”

Levy sued and won in a federal appeals court on the grounds that her speech was made off school grounds and was therefore protected by the First Amendment. (The Court previously ruled that students could be punished if their speech was on school grounds and caused “material and substantial disruption” of school functions.) According to the NYT article, though, there was divergence among the judges about why her speech remained protected:

Though the Third Circuit was united in ruling for Ms. Levy, the judges disagreed about the rationale. The majority announced a categorical rule barring discipline for off-campus speech that seemed to limit the ability of public schools to address many kinds of disturbing communications by students on social media, including racist threats and cyberbullying.

In a concurring opinion, Judge Thomas L. Ambro wrote that he would have ruled for Ms. Levy on narrower grounds. It would have been enough, he said, to say that her speech was protected by the First Amendment because it did not disrupt school activities. The majority was wrong, he said, to protect all off-campus speech.

The Supreme Court has limited students’ First Amendment rights since the Tinker decision in 1969. In the court’s last major decision on students’ free speech, in 2007, for instance, the court sided with a principal who had suspended a student for displaying a banner that said “Bong Hits 4 Jesus.”

In general, though, I count this as a victory for the First Amendment. There was clearly no violation of free speech by Ms. Levy saying “Fuck softball/school/cheer/everything”.  I’m not sure about whether the Court’s new ruling really would protect off-campus speech that could include “racist threats” and “cyberbullying”, for some examples of those behaviors could constitute harassment in the work(school)place.

Her speech, though, was clearly off campus, and disruptive though some may have seen it, is not subject to the school’s authority.

I wonder if she’ll go back to cheerleading, or will make the varsity squad.

Here’s the 8-1 opinion, with only Clarence Thomas dissenting on the grounds that whether this speech was really “off campus” is unclear. You can download the pdf by clicking on the arrow to the right.

Click to access 20-255_g3bi.pdf

U Chicago law professor: Universities need dedicated units and officers to protect academic freedom and free speech

June 17, 2021 • 9:15 am

We all know that both the Left and the Right impinge on free speech and academic freedom in American colleges and universities. Though the Left does it more often, at least judging by the number of speaker deplatformings and disinvitations, the Right is no stranger to censorship. The latest incident from the Right occurred recently when Nikole Hannah-Jones, known for her founding of the NYT’s 1619 Project, for which she won a Pulitzer Prize, was refused tenure by the Board of Trustees for a position in the journalism school at the University of North Carolina. Her position had already been approved by the journalism school itself, and by the UNC administration, but the Board of Trustees, which has ultimate power, put the kibosh on it. Though I’m no fan of Hannah Jones or the 1619 Project, I think the trustees should have rubber-stamped the decision of the school itself and hired Hannah-Jones. It’s pretty clear they didn’t do so because Hannah-Jones is a controversial figure beloved by the progressive Left.

Incidents on the Left are more numerous, and I often describe them here. Some are summarized by my colleague Tom Ginsburg, a professor of law and political science at the University of Chicago, in a new article at the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The UNC debacle was not an isolated incident, nor is the threat limited to the political right. Consider other recent examples: the University of Oklahoma demanded agreement from faculty and staff members with certain diversity-related statements as a condition of employment; Chapman University faculty members called for the firing of a professor who appeared at the pro-Trump rally in Washington, D.C., that took place hours before the Capitol insurrection; and Central Michigan University ended the contract of a journalism professor who invited members of the Westboro Baptist Church to class. A recent survey by the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology found widespread self-censorship among U.S. academics.

What to do about this? Ginsburg’s article proposes a solution that seems excellent. Read on by clicking on the screenshot.

The issue is a disparity involving colleges having ample resources and programs for promoting DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion), often with policies that can impinge on freedom of speech and/or academic freedom, but lacking programs and resources to ensure those freedoms themselves. Ginsburg describes this disparity:

In recent years, colleges have devoted significant resources to institutionalizing diversity, inclusion, and equity. These efforts accelerated after the murder of George Floyd, and many colleges are now creating vice president- or vice provost-level positions, leading entire bureaucracies devoted to this effort. As a requirement of federal law, colleges have also developed Title IX bureaucracies, which help to ensure that institutions receiving federal money deal with sexual harassment. Whatever one thinks of the implementation (and the implementation of Title IX in particular has been controversial), it is clear that colleges are serious about these important goals.

In contrast, in most institutions of higher learning, issues of academic freedom or free speech have no designated campus officer. There is no emerging profession devoted to it, no mandatory training programs, no resources for faculty members and students who want to understand what it means. There are no job ads posted for vice presidents for academic freedom. Instead, academic-freedom controversies tend to be left to faculty committees, whose membership turns over regularly, or to ad hoc decisions by provosts and presidents. Among students, questions of freedom of expression are left to deans of students or in some cases to the diversity bureaucracy. Without an institutional base to protect free inquiry, standards are applied in an uneven way. The risk is that administrators will simply give in to the loudest voice in the room, which will, by definition, never be someone whose full-time job is to speak up for academic freedom.

Perhaps Ginsburg was inspired by discussions that many of us have had about the Kalven Report, one of the U of C’s foundational principles. I’ve discussed it here many times; the report is meant to ensure that, with a very few exceptions, neither the University, its administrators, nor its departmental units are permitted to take ideological political, moral, or ideological positions.  (Professors and students themselves, of course, are welcome and encouraged to do so.) The purpose of this policy is to avoid chilling speech and intimidating dissenters that could occur when those who disagree with “official” political or ideological stands become fearful of their standing or treatment by the University.

The Kalven principles were affirmed last fall by our President, Bob Zimmer. Despite that, administrators and departments have been posting many “official” political statements on University websites, most of which clearly violate the University’s own Kalven policy. But it’s hard to get departments to remove them (I think all of those at the previous link are still up), and there is no official mechanism for doing so—and no official ombudsperson, group, or unit devoted to protecting our own principles of free speech. This is important, for it is those principles that the school uses to attract students, and advertises them heavily as an inducement to come here. Without enforcement, though, our famous principles, which include “the Chicago Principles” of free speech (copied by over 55 other schools) are in danger of disappearing.

One solution mentioned by Ginsburg is to give incoming students a unit on freedom of speech and academic freedom, comparable to their units on DEI. But the other is the creation of a formal academic system to ensure freedom of thought. To my knowledge, no university in America has such a system, though nonpartisan organizations like the American Association for University Professors, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the Academic Freedom Alliance will go to bat for faculty and students if their freedom of expression is violated.

As Ginsburg notes, however, such external bodies “are too removed from the front lines to touch the culture of students and faculty members”. So Ginsburg proposes a way to create or strengthen a freedom-of-expression culture in universities and colleges (remember, public ones must adhere to the First Amendment):

Institutionalization of academic freedom could look something like diversity initiatives, and would have the same goal: to advance core values in the culture of colleges. Staff members would serve as a resource for the faculty, develop basic explanations of core concepts for students, collect data, and advise leaders behind the scenes on how to handle controversies when they arise. While the last thing faculty members need is another online training program, there should at least be materials introducing new faculty members and students to the importance of academic freedom. One might imagine orientation programs where participants wrestle with the idea, perhaps role-playing through tough cases; books on free speech could be considered for pre-freshman summer reading; and students should be invited to ruminate on the fate of academics in places like Turkey, Venezuela, and Hungary, where attacks on colleges were a harbinger of broader assaults on democracy.

Indeed, when the controversy about the Kalven Principles arose in the past year, many faculty members were completely unaware of this policy, even though it’s a critical part of our Foundational Principles. But even when departments are informed that they’re putting up statements that violate these Principles, they ignore the critics and leave them up. This has already caused some chilling of speech on campus.

I would go even further than Ginsburg, though. The “institutionalizaton” of freedom of expression and academic freedom should encompass a formal and permanent unit that will adjudicate reported violations by the University itself or by its departments. The decisions should not be left to the University administration, for, as in our case, they’ve let stand several arrant violations of our own principles—for reasons I can guess but don’t know for sure.

If we can have permanent units to deal with and promote DEI, we can surely have permanent units to promote and enforce academic freedom. After all, our principles are already written down; all we need is a way to ensure that they’re followed. This need not involve Pecksniffian “bias reporting,” but certainly can involve dealing with issues like deplatforming, disruption or abrogation of free speech, and, for the faculty, violations of academic freedom.

The ACLU unconvincingly denies accusations of “mission creep”

June 10, 2021 • 10:45 am

Three days ago I highlighted a New York Times piece, “Once a bastion of free speech, the A.C.L.U. faces an identity crisis“. (This was a news report, not an op-ed.) It obviously hit home at the ACLU, because on the organization’s website their legal director, David Cole, has written a long piece defending the ACLU against the accusation that it’s undergoing mission creep by moving from defending civil liberties to engaging in social-justice work.

Click on the screenshot to read.

Cole argues strenuously, and gives examples, that the ACLU is still actively engaged in defending civil liberties—often of people or groups despised by the Left, including the NRA, Milo Yiannopoulos, Donald Trump, and so on. He gives a list of five years of civil-rights lawsuits that the ACLU has brought—from 2017 to 2021.

And, as I’ve said before, he’s got a point here: the ACLU is indeed continuing its mission. My point, and the New York Times’s was that it’s diluting its classic mission by engaging in social justice work, which isn’t in itself bad, but because some of that social justice work is not even-handed but one sided in terms of rights. Further, there are many other organizations doing social-justice work, but only the ACLU (and now the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE), has the resources and chops to defend the civil liberties of the despiséd.

In other words, the ACLU is doing what the Southern Poverty Law Center has done: taken its classic mission and, by branching off into questionable social justice activities (damning Maajid Nawaz and Ayaan Hirsi Ali for the SPLC), diluted not just its mission, but also its credibility.

I’ve written at length about the dubious stuff the ACLU is engaged in; and here’s a partial list of posts:

The ACLU backs off defending free speech in favor of promoting social justice

New improved standards proposed for adjudicating sexual misconduct in college; ACLU opposes them for “inappropriately favoring the accused”

The ACLU defends the right of biological men to compete in women’s sports

ACLU continues defending the right of medically untreated men who claim they’re women to compete in women’s sports

ACLU joins lawsuit allowing biological males to compete in women’s sports

My beefs fall into four areas.

First, the ACLU is on the side of diluting the changes in Title IX made by Betsy DeVos to guarantee a fair hearing to college students accused of sexual misconduct. Nearly all these changes brought college hearings closer to court hearings, at least in terms of guaranteeing fairness. As I’ve said, these changes are one of the few positive things accomplished by the Trump administration, and the ACLU should have favored them. Instead, as you see in one piece below, they were characterized as “inappropriately favoring the accused.”  If you read the changes, I suspect you’ll agree that the ACLU should have been in favor of them, not opposed to them.

Second, the ACLU is on a big-time movement to ensure that transgender women can compete on a level playing field (i.e., competing under their gender identity) with men in sports. This is a complex issue (see here for one possible solution), but becomes less complex with the ACLU’s claim that medically untreated transgender women (that is, biological males who have undergone neither surgery nor hormone treatment but claim a female identity) should be able to compete in sports against biological women. This is a very bad call as it’s the equivalent of biological men competing against biological women, and this violates the very reason why we separate men’s and women’s sport. Further, even with medically treated transgender women, there is an issue of fairness to biological women, since transgender women may retain strength, bone density, and muscle mass that gives them an average advantage over biological women. The ACLU’s kneejerk reaction here does not take into account the “rights” of biological women. It is an ideological stand that deviates far from the ACLU’s mission to assure civil rights for all.

Third, in tweets by ACLU branches and attorneys, they have favored censorship of books like Abigail Schrier’s, and accused cops of murder who were, by all reasonable accounts, doing their jobs. How is this fulfilling their mission of extending civil rights to all? (Chase Strangio is the ACLU staff attorney in charges of transgender issues.)

Fourth, as I discussed in a post a while back, the ACLU circulated a document in samizdat that explicitly said that they now have to consider diluting their mission when defending speech involves defending “hate speech”. As I wrote at the time (my words are indented in regular type; the ACLU’s words are indented further and italicized):

The ACLU is committed to the fundamental rights to equality and justice embodied in the Fourteenth Amendment and civil rights laws. See Policies #301-332. We are determined to fight racism in all its forms, whether explicit or implicit, and the deep-rooted institutional biases that continue to reify inequality. We are also firmly committed to fighting bigotry and oppression against other marginalized groups, including women, immigrants, religious groups, LGBT individuals, Native Americans, and people with disabilities. Accordingly, we work to extend the protections embodied in the Bill of Rights to people who have traditionally been denied those rights. And the ACLU understands that speech that denigrates such groups can inflict serious harms and is intended to and often will impede progress toward equality.

Note that they now claim that speech that denigrates groups—including religion!—can “inflict serious harms” and “impede progress toward equality”. Here is the beginning of the slippery slope of “hate speech”. Is criticism of the Vatican, or the excesses of Islam, sufficiently harmful that the ACLU will not defend it? What about religionists who demonstrate for the right of bakers and others not to serve gays?

And remember when the ACLU defended the Klan when it wanted to march through the Jewish suburb of Skokie, Illinois? Well, no more.

We recognize that taking a position on one issue can affect our advocacy in other areas and create particular challenges for staff members engaged in that advocacy. For example, a decision by the ACLU to represent a white supremacist group may well undermine relationships with allies or coalition partners, create distrust with particular communities, necessitate the expenditure of resources to mitigate the impact of those harms, make it more difficult to recruit and retain a diverse staff and board across multiple dimensions, and in some circumstances, directly further an agenda that is antithetical to our mission and values and that may inflict harm on listeners.

Yes this document, which was leaked and is now publicly available, is characterized by Cole this way in his post of yesterday:

I led a committee representing a wide range of divergent views within the ACLU in developing guidelines for selecting cases where they present conflicts between values that the ACLU defends. We reaffirmed in that document that “As human rights, these rights extend to all, even to the most repugnant speakers — including white supremacists — and pursuant to ACLU policy, we will continue our longstanding practice of representing such groups in appropriate circumstances to prevent unlawful government censorship of speech.”

At the same time, we acknowledged the costs that can come with that representation, including to other interests and work of the organization, and outlined ways to address and mitigate the costs when we do decide to embark on that representation. That can mean making clear in public statements that we abhor the speakers’ views even as we defend their right to express them, supporting counter-protesters, and investing any attorneys’ fees we obtain in connection with the work to advance the views that the speaker opposed and that we support. Some saw even this document’s acknowledgment of the complexity of such work as an abandonment of principle, but we saw it as an honest effort to confront the challenge of being a multi-issue organization.

Read the document yourself, and see if you think that’s a fair summary. Their “mitigation of costs” completely ignores the implication in the document that they might reject cases that they’d normally take because it involves hate speech that can cause “harm”.

At any rate, there’s also been negative reaction from other quarters to what I saw as a fair report in the NYT (see this piece in The New Republic).  The TNR piece is misguided in the same way the ACLU’s mission creep is misguided: they do not prioritize free speech over hate speech.  You cannot pretend that free speech will never be construed as “hate speech”—it’s nearly always seen that way by the speech opponents.

But thank Ceiling Cat for organizations like FIRE whose principle of promulgating free speech in higher education has not been diluted.

h/t: Ginger K., Enrico

Michelle Goldberg on why the Left needs the ACLU to keep defending odious speech

June 9, 2021 • 11:00 am

I recently kvetched about the American Civil Liberty Union’s (ACLU’s) movement against defending freedom of speech and towards social-justice initiatives, objecting both to the kinds of issues that the ACLU is now tackling (taking the side of those offended by “hate speech” and rejecting defense of the First Amendment), and to their entering an area that is already full of other people doing similar work. (The only organization doing anything similar to the ACLU is the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education—FIRE), which formed to fill the lacuna left when the ACLU stopped working on college issues.)

I was thus pleased to see NYT op-ed writer Michelle Goldberg take a similar position in her Monday column (click on screenshot below). In her view, the ACLU’s defense of “awful speech” is essential in ensuring social justice:

It’s a short piece and can be summarized briefly. First, this isn’t the first time the ACLU has been divided (there was internecine dissent in 1978 over the ACLU’s defense of the Klan.) Still, it’s pretty clear there’s a generational split over free speech, both in the A.C.L.U. and in liberalism writ large.

Second, people seem slow to realize that defense of free speech is essential for guaranteeing civil liberties and the rights of minorities.  Without the First Amendment, Black Lives Matter protests, for example, could have been banned, and protests are being banned now. Goldberg:

I wonder, however, if this divide could soon fade away, because events in the wider world are conspiring to remind the American left how dependent it is on a robust First Amendment. Civil libertarians have always argued that even if privileged people enjoy more free speech protections in practice, erosions of free speech guarantees will always fall hardest on the most marginalized. This is now happening all over the country.

She gives two examples. One is the spate of anti-protest bills being passed by many states:

In a number of states, Republicans have responded to last year’s racial justice uprising by cracking down on demonstrators. As The Times reported in April, during 2021 legislative sessions, lawmakers in 34 states have introduced 81 anti-protest bills. An Indiana bill would bar people convicted of unlawful assembly from state employment. A Minnesota proposal would prohibit people convicted of unlawful protesting from getting student loans, unemployment benefits or housing assistance. Florida passed a law protecting drivers from civil liability if they crash their cars into people protesting in the streets.

I’m not sure about the legality of punishing people for being convicted of unlawful assembly, but it seems like a form of double jeopardy—like denying convicted felons who have served their sentences the right to vote.  The Florida drivers’ law seem simply ridiculous.

Goldberg’s second example is the widespread passing of laws prohibiting the teaching of Critical Race Theory (CRT) in public schools. (Trump started this by banning CRT training for federal employees.) While I have my beefs about some tenets of CRT, I don’t think it’s the place of any government, federal or state, to declare what cannot be taught. (Evolution is an exception, for that is an empirically supported theory ubiquitously accepted by scientists.) Curricula fall under the ambit of schools and school boards.

As Goldberg says, “the credibility of your defenders matters”. What she means is that organizations that are evenhanded in defending the First Amendment or free expression are organizations most likely to be listened to and respected. For they are following a principle, not an ideology.

Goldberg ends her piece with a nice aphorism:

. . . in the end, the A.C.L.U. has usually, in the teeth of internal conflict, stuck to its mission. Maybe every generation has to learn for itself that censorship isn’t a shortcut to justice.

My only beef here is her repeated claim that the ACLU is sticking to its mission. Yes, it is to some extent, but it’s increasingly abandoning the classical mission of defending everyone’s speech in favor of going after those said to purvey “hate speech.” See my kvetch for examples of the latter.


The ACLU loses its way

June 7, 2021 • 9:15 am

I was always a big fan of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), admiring their single-minded dedication to preserving our civil liberties, most notably those specified by the First Amendment. But they also saved my bacon when I took the government to court for drafting me illegally as a conscientious objector. When I went to they ACLU, they started a class-action suit (I paid nothing) that we won, resulting in the release from service of myself and several thousand other guys.

But about five years ago the ACLU went off the rails, at least in my view. Instead of defending civil liberties and free speech, they began to ponder whether free speech and social justice might be incompatible in some ways, with words actually constituting “violence” that could hurt minorities. The real derailing, resulting in today’s split ACLU, began in August, 2017, when the ACLU won the right for far-right groups to demonstrate in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia instead of outside the center city. That demonstration, of course, led to violence, right-wing marches complete with bigoted slogans, and, eventually, to a white-supremacist protestor driving his car into a crowd, killing Heather Heyer. But I don’t hold the ACLU responsible for the death, though some do.

Although the ACLU was already morphing from a civil rights organization into a social justice organization, the Charlottesville debacle made many members and administrators rethink their mission. And since then the transformation has been more rapid, as described in a New York Times article (click on the screenshot below). It’s not the social-justice mission I object to so much—though some of the ACLU’s stands, like wholeheartedly supporting the right of transgender women, even those medically untreated, to participate in women’s sports, are wrongheaded—but to the fact that there are dozens of organizations already fighting for all forms of social justice, while the ACLU was unique in the singlemindedness of its mission. Now, at least on campus, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is taking over its job, but without the same dosh or resources backing the ACLU.

Although I’ve written about this before, the article has a lot more “inside” quotes both for and against the new mission of the ACLU.

An intro (we’ve met Ira Glasser before):

The A.C.L.U., America’s high temple of free speech and civil liberties, has emerged as a muscular and richly funded progressive powerhouse in recent years, taking on the Trump administration in more than 400 lawsuits. But the organization finds itself riven with internal tensions over whether it has stepped away from a founding principle — unwavering devotion to the First Amendment.

Its national and state staff members debate, often hotly, whether defense of speech conflicts with advocacy for a growing number of progressive causes, including voting rights, reparations, transgender rights and defunding the police.

Those debates mirror those of the larger culture, where a belief in the centrality of free speech to American democracy contends with ever more forceful progressive arguments that hate speech is a form of psychological and even physical violence. These conflicts are unsettling to many of the crusading lawyers who helped build the A.C.L.U.

The organization, said its former director Ira Glasser, risks surrendering its original and unique mission in pursuit of progressive glory.

“There are a lot of organizations fighting eloquently for racial justice and immigrant rights,” Mr. Glasser said. “But there’s only one A.C.L.U. that is a content-neutral defender of free speech. I fear we’re in danger of losing that.”

And here’s the scary bits, which I put in bold:

One hears markedly less from the A.C.L.U. about free speech nowadays. Its annual reports from 2016 to 2019 highlight its role as a leader in the resistance against President Donald J. Trump. But the words “First Amendment” or “free speech” cannot be found. Nor do those reports mention colleges and universities, where the most volatile speech battles often play out.

Since Mr. Trump’s election, the A.C.L.U. budget has nearly tripled to more than $300 million as its corps of lawyers doubled. The same number of lawyers — four — specialize in free speech as a decade ago.

Some A.C.L.U. lawyers and staff members argue that the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech and the press — as well as freedom of religion, assembly and petitioning the government — is more often a tool of the powerful than the oppressed.

“First Amendment protections are disproportionately enjoyed by people of power and privilege,” said Dennis Parker, who directed the organization’s Racial Justice Program until he left in late 2018.

To which David Cole, the national legal director of the A.C.L.U., rejoined in an interview: “Everything that Black Lives Matter does is possible because of the First Amendment.”

After Charlottesville, the ACLU began its shift, which I’m sure will go further. I wrote at the time about how the organization issued a memo beginning to back off defense of free speech. A quote from today’s NYT piece:

But longtime free speech advocates like Floyd Abrams, perhaps the nation’s leading private First Amendment lawyer, disagreed. The new guidelines left him aghast.

“The last thing they should be thinking about in a case is which ideological side profits,” he said. “The A.C.L.U. that used to exist would have said exactly the opposite.”

And the old ACLU was right. If you don’t keep freedom of expression as an inviolate principle, then speech is subject to the vagaries of not only who controls the government but also, like now, of which ideological views are considered acceptable. Right now we’re seeing this clash play out largely on college campuses, often through official ideological announcements as well as deplatformings, disinvitations, and cancellations of speakers. And this is where FIRE has picked up the torch, for the ACLU doesn’t get much involved. Even here the clash between free speech and offense has led to the University of Chicago’s violating its own principles of academic freedom and free expression.

While the ACLU continues to take traditional civil liberties cases, it’s now sometimes taken stands opposite to what it would done in the past. For example, Chase Strangio, the transgender ACLU staff attorney in charge of that part of the new mission, has called for censorship of Abigail Shrier’s book on gender dysphoria. Censorship—from the ACLU!

To wit:

And the ACLU opposed the Title IX changes made by the Trump administration (one of the few laudable things it did) assuring a fairer process in sexual-misconduct hearings in college.

Further, below you’ll see a tweet from the ACLU of Ohio not only jettisoning the presumption of innocence, but ignoring that the officer criticized here was trying to prevent a murder. It’s madness for the ACLU to issue a statement like this (yes, official tweets are statements) violating not only the known facts, but the principle of “innocent until proven guilty.” In fact, from what I know so far, the police officer acted correctly.

I mourn the new direction of the ACLU, but of course that’s the direction that everything is going. While the organization will still do good stuff involving social justice, it will also do questionable stuff, as we’ve just seen. And I can’t think of a single case in which their past defenses of the First Amendment have been deplorable.

If the First Amendment and free speech is to be preserved, it must be preserved for everybody, with a few exceptions already carved out by the courts. We don’t need more exceptions, especially to placate those who equate speech with violence.

Here’s a humorous prescription by Katie Herzog. I agree, though we don’t need an ACLU Jr., as there are already plenty of those organizations.

And here’s a list of my posts, with links, describing and mourning the ACLU’s new direction:

The ACLU backs off defending free speech in favor of promoting social justice

New improved standards proposed for adjudicating sexual misconduct in college; ACLU opposes them for “inappropriately favoring the accused”

The ACLU defends the right of biological men to compete in women’s sports

ACLU continues defending the right of medically untreated men who claim they’re women to compete in women’s sports

ACLU joins lawsuit allowing biological males to compete in women’s sports

h/t for Herzog tweet: Eli

Cancel culture: is it real and, if so, how can we tame it?

June 4, 2021 • 9:15 am

The latest news is about as scant as I’ve seen since the pandemic began, and maybe that’s a good thing. The bad part is that nothing meaty is happening in the world of culture, with the usual instances of demonization, pushback, abject apologies, and the relentless spread of wokeness, which I now consider unstoppable for the next five years or so. But what do I know?  Today I’ll point you to several articles that you can read, and I’ll give my own take on them.

Here’s an article from the Vancouver Sun sent in by reader Michael called to my attention; click on the screenshot.

While many on the Left deny that there is a “cancel culture”, arguing that it’s just a fancy, right-wing monicker for the usual give-and-take of political discussion, I don’t think that’s the case. There are two things that are new with real “cancel culture” that distinguish it from regular debate about ideas:

a. The creation of taboos: ideas that one is forbidden to discuss, many of them involving observed group differences. Even mentioning these ideas or the data behind them can ruin one’s reputation. John McWhorter specializes in discussing this taboos with respect to race in America.

b. Which brings us to the second point. Instead of being seen as political/intellectual/moral discourse, much “cancel culture” discussion involves labeling people as “bad” and attempting to ruin their reputations. In other words, people’s characters become a topic more important as their views.

Todd, whose Twitter bio says that he’s a “migration, diversity & spirituality writer at Vancouver Sun/Postmedia (incl. housing crisis)”, first adduces evidence for a cancel culture (his words are indented):

But cancel culture is spreading wider today. Social media has expanded the power of mass cancellation and de-platforming (stopping a person from contributing to a public forum). Polls suggest two of three North Americans believe social media is fostering more hatred and violence.

. . . But the disturbing problem with cancel culture is it is most often characterized by vigilantism and moral panic. It lacks due process; it has no checks and balances on the potential ruination of reputations.

I agree with the problem, but how does one enact “due process” for this “vigilantism and moral panic”? Todd has some solutions, but (see below), they seem seem lame.

More evidence (Todd adduces anecdotes like Rusdie’s fatwa and attacks on people like Bari Weiss and J. K. Rowling, but those folks are hardly “canceled”):

Eric Kaufmann is a political-science professor at University of London, Birkbeck, who was raised in Hong Kong and Vancouver. He recently led a groundbreaking study into scholars’ attitudes to free expression in Britain and North America. His poll findings reveal the air is definitely chilly.

“Less than 10 per cent of Canadian academics generally support campaigns to dismiss scholars who report controversial findings around race and gender,” Kaufmann found. “However, a large group, of around 30 per cent to 60 per cent, do not actively oppose cancellation. This mirrors American and British findings.”

Kaufmann, whose origins are Jewish, Hispanic and Chinese, also discovered that major academic departments are overwhelmingly made up of people who are left wing.

“Seventy-three per cent of Canadian social science and humanities academics sampled from the 40 top-ranked universities identify as left-wing, with just four per cent identifying as right-wing.” The few conservatives who remain report the climate is hostile, with many self-selecting away from academia.

Partly because of Kaufmann’s widely discussed report, the British government has brought in legislation to require universities to protect the free speech of staff, students and visiting speakers.

Well, these are polls of academic support and lack of support, and although the Left is more responsible than the Right for deplatformings and cancelations, the Right is by no means exculpated. But let’s assume, based on the long list of anecdotes, which are data in the plural, that there is a cancel culture. The list of firings and ostracism at the New York Times alone will tell you that something wonky is going on.

As for government mandates that universities must have free speech, we don’t need that in public schools or universities in the U.S., as it’s alreadythe law; but there’s no legal mandate that private schools allow free speech.  Such a mandate would violate the Constitution since such schools are not considered arms of the government and hence needn’t follow the First Amendment. But, as far as possible, I recommend that all universities follow the Chicago Principles, which, at our private university, uphold the precepts of the First Amendment. I see no reason why the adoption of these Principles can’t be nearly universal, though of course religious schools won’t cotton to them.

What I do oppose are legislatures’ attempt to mandate what is or is not to be taught, like Critical Race Theory. While I object to much of CRT, it’s the bailiwick of school boards, not state legislatures, to determine what subjects should and shouldn’t be taught.

Given that cancel culture is real, what cures does Todd prescribe. He has three:

1.) “Administrations could start by protecting the weakening tenure system, which provides senior professors with job security, says Gandesha, who has tenure. He is worried many faculty, especially adjuncts, self-censor to the extreme knowing they can be destroyed by a vendetta over a wayward remark.” [Simon Gandesha is a professor at Simon Fraser who teaches a course on cancel culture.]

Yes, there is self-censorship everywhere, but much of that has nothing to do with tenure. For untenured faculty, it’s true that there’s a danger they can be fired for free speech, but the adoption of the Chicago Principles would prevent that. That adoption is in fact Coyne’s Solution to cancel culture, at least in universities (see below).

2.) “As for the chaotic, vicious world of social media, Gandesha joins those who believe it’s time to treat giant internet companies like utilities, organizations that provide the public with electricity, gas or water. That means bringing in complex regulations — so that decisions about what can be shared online aren’t left to the mania of the crowd.”

This is dangerous, as those “complex regulations” will inevitably be so slippery that much of them will amount to censorship of ideas that some people don’t like. Is the Will of Zuckerberg really superior to The Mania of the Crowd?


3.) “And how hard, Gandesha asks, would it be to respond to polarization by having more public debates between people on the left and right — like the way, in 1973, that revolutionary Black Panther Huey P. Newton appeared on the show Firing Line with conservative commentator William F. Buckley.

It’s not impossible to do so today, although it’s rare. To their credit, University of Toronto psychologist Jordan Peterson, who has been subjected to boycott campaigns on some campuses, and Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek were able to model how to dialogue when they took part in a debate in 2019.”

Is there anybody who thinks that more public debates between political or ideological opponents will even begin to ameliorate cancel culture? First, many such debates will be shut down. Second, we’ve been having debates between evolutionists and creationists for a hundred years, and they haven’t brought people to the truth (i.e., evolution) or quelled the controversy, in which Americans who accept some form of creationism outnumber those accepting scientific evolution by more than three to one. Debates are exercises in rhetoric and forms of entertainment, but I don’t think they’re particularly good at changing minds.

So what is my solution? It’s twofold.

First, as many schools as possible should adopt the Chicago Principles of Free Expression, which means adhering to America’s First Amendment.

Second, PUSH BACK on what you don’t like. If you’re in a position to speak up without getting fired or killed, by all means oppose the madness publicly. I think this is the best way to help reduce the prevalance of cancel culture. After all, it worked to reduce the prevalence of religiosity! The more people come out against the madness, the more the silent people will feel empowered to join the chorus.

h/t: Michael