The Latest Victims of the Free-Speech Crisis

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Written By Pinang Driod

Since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, the issue of free speech on college campuses has received a new wave of scrutiny. Palestinian student groups have faced threats of censorship for their statements, donors have warned about pulling funding, and employers have blacklisted students who blamed Israel for Hamas’s attack.

But as far as free speech is concerned, 2023 has been a relatively normal year for colleges and universities. Just don’t confuse “normal” with “good.”

So far this year, my organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), has received 1,312 submissions about possible free-speech violations. Compare that with 1,394 in 2022, 1,445 in 2021, and 1,526 in 2020. For 2023’s numbers to top those, the next five weeks would have to be unprecedented.

That’s not to say nothing has changed. There has been a troubling uptick in threats, vandalism, and assault directed at Jewish students in recent weeks. And efforts to shut down pro-Palestinian speech have intensified—including Florida ordering its state schools to ban Students for Justice in Palestine groups and Brandeis University actually doing it. (FIRE opposed both moves.)

Protecting free speech requires defending the rights of both sides of any conflict. That will only get harder if we ignore just how long colleges have been falling short. Today’s headlines can distract from the fact that campuses have been in crisis for the better part of a decade.

Since 2000, FIRE has tracked incidents in which professors have been targeted for their speech. We’ve found that, until 2014, academics had little reason to self-censor, even when discussing the day’s most controversial topics. In the five years after 9/11, for example, more than a dozen professors faced calls to be fired, investigated, or otherwise sanctioned for statements they made about the attacks. These included Ward Churchill, a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, who compared the World Trade Center victims to a Nazi war criminal, as well as the University of New Mexico professor Richard Berthold, who told his class, “Anyone who blows up the Pentagon gets my vote.”

Only three ended up losing their job—including Churchill—each for reasons that went beyond protected speech. From 2014 to July of this year, by comparison, we’ve counted more than 1,000 campaigns to investigate or punish scholars for their views. About two-thirds of them succeeded, resulting in almost 200 firings and hundreds of other sanctions.

These numbers are almost certainly an underestimate. According to a national survey of nearly 1,500 faculty commissioned last year by FIRE, one in six professors reports having been disciplined or threatened with discipline for their speech, and one in three said they’ve been pressured by colleagues to avoid researching controversial topics.

This is what I, along with my co-author, Rikki Schlott, document in our new book, The Canceling of the American Mind. We found that the censorship people are alarmed by now is really business as usual. Cancel culture—which I define as campaigns to get people fired, expelled, deplatformed, or otherwise punished for speech that is, or would be, protected by the First Amendment—has been pervasive for years, not weeks. The phenomenon kicked off in 2014 and ramped up starting in 2017, right as Gen Z, the first generation to grow up with social media, began entering higher education in massive numbers.

Some have described the recent sanctioning of pro-Palestinian advocacy as a “new McCarthyism.” But even McCarthyism didn’t seem to cause as much damage on campuses as we’ve seen in the past decade. According to the largest study at the time, about 100 professors were fired over a 10-year period during the second Red Scare for their political beliefs or communist ties. We found that, in the past nine years, the number of professors fired for their beliefs was closer to 200. In the late 1950s, when McCarthyism ended, only 9 percent of social scientists said they had toned down anything they had written because they were worried it might cause controversy.

Since then, self-censoring has grown even though legal protections for professors have improved. During McCarthyism, American jurisprudence had not yet established that the First Amendment prevented schools from firing professors for what they believed. In fact, the Supreme Court didn’t establish constitutional protections for academic freedom until 1957. Over the next two decades, Supreme Court precedents further strengthened academic freedom, free speech, and freedom of association for both students and professors. At public colleges—at the very least—professors cannot be fired because of their viewpoint, thanks to those precedents.

Still, last year’s FIRE survey found that 59 percent of professors are at least “somewhat likely” to self-censor in academic publications. With respect to publications, talks, interviews, or lectures directed to a general audience, that figure was 79 percent. And the problem continues to get worse: 38 percent of faculty said they were more likely to self-censor at the end of 2022 than they were in September 2020. A 2021 report by the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology found that a staggering 70 percent of right-leaning academics in the social sciences and humanities self-censor in their teaching or research.

It seems to me that the only major difference between the past few weeks and the past decade has to do with who is finally acknowledging the problem. People who once claimed that cancel culture doesn’t exist—or that it’s really just “accountability” or “consequence” culture—are lamenting the issue now that they agree with the group suffering the consequences.

Indeed, ideology plays an important role in how campus speech is treated. The specifics of each case vary significantly, but FIRE data show that pro-Palestinian speech has generally been more likely to trigger campaigns to get professors fired, investigated, or sanctioned than pro-Israel speech has. Campaigns targeting pro-Israel speech, however, have been more likely to succeed. Similarly, more attempts have been made to deplatform pro-Palestinian speeches on campus, but attempts against pro-Israel speakers have been more successful. In fact, all substantial and successful disruptions of campus speeches that FIRE has recorded on this issue have targeted pro-Israel advocacy. This might partly be explained by the fact that pro-Palestinian—and even pro-Hamas—sentiments are relatively common on campus and among college-aged Americans.

If we want to defeat cancel culture and preserve free speech and academic freedom on campus, we need to recognize it regardless of its victims. Those decrying today’s so-called new McCarthyism will have to acknowledge just how long it’s been going on—not only for the past 40 days, but for the past nine years.

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