Campus cancel culture: what you need to know — past, present, and future

June 24, 2020

As you may have noticed, the cultural phenomenon known as “cancel culture” has really intensified in recent weeks. Across the country, people are increasingly organizing (especially on social media) to get people fired from their jobs, kicked out of college, to have their admissions revoked, or otherwise just to make other people’s lives utterly miserable because of past things they may have said/done that are currently deemed offensive.

Across the country, people are increasingly organizing (especially on social media) to get people fired from their jobs, kicked out of college, to have their admissions revoked.

While we at FIRE are spending most of our time addressing the influx of cases resulting from these developments, I thought it was worth taking a moment to share three categories of things that students and professors (and, for that matter, parents, grandparents, friends, and citizens) need to know.

Past: How we got here

FIRE is a free-speech organization, but we’ve always interpreted “free speech” to mean something larger, older, and bolder than just your legal rights. Given that we are also concerned with academic freedom, I’ve also focused on how to make discussions productive, and how to promote tolerance for people you disagree with. Of particular importance in higher education is determining how to keep an atmosphere of robust debate, thought experimentation, and innovation alive and healthy. 

From a very early stage, FIRE advocated for what could roughly be called a “culture of free speech,” where we seriously consider the ideas most opposed to our own, debate and persuade those who disagree with us, consider people’s intentions, and give space for error and forgiveness when faced with mistakes. This is the antithesis of cancel culture, which attempts to reduce individuals to a singular offensive statement or action, remove them from mainstream society, and inflict grave social costs on anyone who might defend them.

FIRE was way ahead of the curve on warning about cancel culture, even before it had a name, and we warned that illiberalism, if unchecked on campus, would spread to the world at large — a fact which at least a few critics have come to recognize.

If you want to understand how we got here, the Clear and Present Danger podcast is a great place to start. Additionally, here is my piece on the connection between free speech and the ancient religious wars. After that, consider:

  1. Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate (2012): In retrospect, the year this book came out was the calm before the storm. The arc of the book involves a fictional student being taught lesson after lesson that eventually causes him or her to go from opposing ideological censorship to supporting it. Even in the first decade of my career (2001-2011), there was already plenty of evidence that we were teaching students the habits of unfree societies and that they were paying attention. A major theme of the book is the promotion of an “unscholarly certainty” which threatened free speech, and the academic project itself.
  2. Freedom From Speech (2014): I wrote this short book very soon after it started to become clear that something had changed on campus, and suddenly the drive for “cancellation” was coming from both students and the news media. Here I offer my explanation on why, unfortunately, I thought this problem was likely to get a lot worse after that change, as tribalism and polarization were a predictable result of societal sorting and otherwise positive technological and societal progress.
  3. Can We Take a Joke? (2015): This is a documentary film we started working on in 2012 that turned out to be way ahead of its time. “Cancel culture” was not a term that had caught on yet, so we talk about it in terms of “the culture of offense.” The documentary looks at the tension between outrage culture and comedy both on and off campus and how with the addition of social media it can be insidious. Joining us for that look are comedians Gilbert Gottfried, Penn Jillette, Lisa Lampanelli, Heather McDonald, Jim Norton, Karith Foster, and more. 
  4. Coddling of the American Mind (the article) (2015): Five years old this August, I co-wrote this feature article for The Atlantic with Jonathan Haidt. In it, we pointed out that the new cancel culture norms on campus were not just bad for free speech and academic freedom, but also for mental health. We also warned that the trends of cancel culture were likely to bleed over into the “real world” as students graduated and entered professional life. 
  5. Coddling of the American Mind (the book) (2018): This is by far the most comprehensive thing I’ve written on this topic. Jon and I go in-depth to study how bad the mental health crisis has gotten, the six causal factors we think are related to it, and its relationship to what we call “the three great untruths.” You might want to pay special attention to cases from the 2015 protests that demanded faculty or staff be fired and the short surge of violence on campus in 2017. Unfortunately, I expect this fall to look like a combination of the worst aspects of both.

Present: What you can do right now to help protect you or your campus from cancel culture

Staying informed is the first step, and fortunately, it’s easy to do: just subscribe to our email lists and we’ll send breaking campus news directly to you. If you use Twitter, follow people who frequently highlight campus free expression conflicts like Robby Soave, Jacob Mchangama, KC Johnson, Bari Weiss, and, well, me. After that: 

  1. Submit a case: If you are a student or professor and you or someone you know is currently facing punishment, whether it’s about cancellation or not, FIRE can potentially help. We are currently overwhelmed with case requests, but we will get back to you.
  2. Read our Guide to Free Speech on Campus: Still the best overview we’ve written on what your free speech rights are on campus.
  3. Read our Guide to Due Process and Campus Justice: All students (and their parents) should read this before they go to college.
  4. Check out your school’s free-speech record in FIRE’s Spotlight Database.
  5. For faculty, join FIRE’s Faculty Network, where we’ll share legal developments and advocacy strategies to help keep your campus free. 
  6. For students, join FIRE’s Student Network, where you’ll get updates on your campus, as well as a heads-up about events, conferences, activism toolkits, and internship opportunities.
  7. Students who want to do more can look into founding or joining a chapter of Student Defenders, groups of students who help their peers facing punishment for alleged conduct code violations.
  8. Use that TAKE ACTION button! For some schools in our Spotlight Database, or attached to some news stories, we have a “Take Action” button that lets you contact your school directly. When you hear about an incident, call or write the administration to let them know that you support free speech, academic freedom, and diversity of opinion on campus. Defend people with whom you disagree with the same zeal you use to defend the people you agree with.

Future: FIRE resources that can help make the future better than the present

The goal of teaching anything on campus is to have that knowledge present in the world at large; teaching a culture of free expression is no different. The better-equipped people are to share knowledge and use reason to find solutions, the more they’ll learn as a lifelong habit. 

One of the most efficient ways to pursue that big-picture goal is to push for campuses to adopt a culture of free expression. Some tools for that:  

  1. Our “Five ways university presidents can prove their commitment to free speecharticle is a great way to start. Despite the title, it offers specific action items anyone can work to implement on any campus, starting today. 
  2. For K-12 educators, our Free Speech Curriculum modules cultivate active citizenship in the context of lessons on topics including Constitution Day, Black History, and censorship of social media. 
  3. Encourage your campus to use our Free Speech at Freshman Orientation modules. The best time to reach a consensus on freedom of expression is before controversy begins. Setting the expectation of a free speech culture from the first day on campus will make future conflicts easier to resolve. 
  4. Our Model Code of Student Conduct is a guide for college and university administrators for governing student life in a way that protects students’ rights. Its provisions are a distillation of FIRE’s experience and expertise gained through over two decades of studying college and university disciplinary systems and responding to daily requests for assistance from students, faculty members, and administrators nationwide.
  5. Support FIRE. Whether through a one-time donation, recurring donations, a legacy gift, or by selecting us as your AmazonSmile charity, every dollar helps. If the lights went out, we’d fight for individual freedom in the dark — but it’s a lot easier to do with the lights on.