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How many scholars is it okay to target for controversial speech?
Last week, FIRE released our annual “Scholars Under Fire” report. The report documents attempts from 2000 to 2022 to sanction scholars for speech that is — or in public settings would be — protected by the First Amendment. We found more than 1,000 sanction attempts, with more than 600 ending in sanction, and more than 200 resulting in the termination of the targeted scholar’s employment.
Our findings were met with a range of positive responses and were covered by more than a dozen publications. However, we want to address one specific criticism that received a fair amount of attention and seeks to delegitimize the purpose of the report.
Podcaster Michael Hobbes — who frequently denies that cancel culture is a problem — tweeted, “There are 4,000 universities in the United States . . . There are roughly 1.7 million college professors in the US…The idea that these numbers constitute a high-priority threat to education right now is laughable.”
Putting aside the fact that sanction attempts tend to occur at the 600 schools that educate 80% of students at not-for-profit four-year colleges nationwide, Hobbes is correct that a small number of scholars have been targeted, sanctioned, and fired in comparison to the number of all faculty at American colleges. However, many historical injustices affected relatively few people, yet we rightfully look back on such events with horror.
- “Only” about 2,000 people were prosecuted under the Espionage Act of 1917.
- “Only” around 300 Americans were targeted by the Hollywood Red Scare of the 1950s.
- “Only” 51 people were prosecuted under the Sedition Act of 1798.
How many people need to be affected before a problem is no longer “laughable”?
An unjust persecution of just one individual can create a chilling effect. What message does an administration send when it fires a professor who raised concerns about racial disparities? Will LGBTQ+ students and faculty feel comfortable expressing themselves if a professor’s contract is not renewed because she identifies as queer? Might science faculty lower their teaching standards in light of a professor being dismissed because his course is considered too difficult? Would you be willing to lose your job for criticizing a proposal to suspend tenure?
These examples are from 2022 alone.
Scholars Under Fire: Attempts to Sanction Scholars from 2000 to 2022
In this report, we explore the phenomenon of “cancel culture” as it applies to scholars in higher education institutions across the country.
No matter where you sit on the political spectrum, you’re sure to sympathize with the views of some targeted scholars and find the views of other targeted scholars deeply offensive. But in a free society, offensiveness must not determine whether a scholar is free to express those views without fear of career-ending retribution. After all, nearly every idea offends someone. Who decides?
Further, when scholars are punished for voicing unpopular opinions, that sets the stage for people with a personal ax to grind to dig up unpopular opinions from those they dislike as a means to an end.
Whoever you are, whatever your beliefs, it’s not hard to find scholars who have come under fire — and even been fired — for expressing controversial views that you might agree with. Hopefully, you are not one of the scholars who have been inadvertently recorded, taken grossly out of context, or fundamentally misunderstood and subsequently out of a job.
But if you are, take comfort in Hobbes’ assessment. Your situation is fairly uncommon.
If you’re a professor at a public college or university and face a threat of sanction, or have been sanctioned, by your institution for expressive activity, please submit your case to FIRE’s Faculty Legal Defense Fund for consideration.
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