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What We’re Reading: January 2021

Four of our readings this month concern campus cancel culture: two essays that define cancel culture and reach differing conclusions about its significance and scope, and two articles commenting on events at flagship public universities, one about a student political club being threatened with defunding and another of a student being pressured to withdraw her application. Students at another public flagship university are in focus in our Big Reads section, with a new survey of students documenting wide support for censoring protected speech.

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Campus Happenings

UO College Republicans Face Backlash After Attending Proud Boys-Supported Rally
James Croxton | Daily Emerald | December 4, 2020

In response to a social media post of a photo showing University of Oregon College Republicans at a “Stop the Steal” rally, in which flags of the Proud Boys can be seen in the background, the university’s student senate unanimously passed a resolution condemning white supremacy and mandating all organization leaders to attend cultural competency training, with some calling for student government to defund the College Republicans campus chapter. According to one student senator, “we are exploring all avenues to holding [the College Republicans] accountable.” The College Republicans leadership maintains that “our efforts at this rally have nothing to do with an endorsement of the Proud Boys” and that they have “condemned, and always will condemn white supremacy, racism and all other similar heinous human prejudices.”

Hundreds of Academics Sign Open Letter Criticizing University of Mississippi’s Firing of History Professor
First Amendment Watch | December 18, 2020

Expressing concern about a potential violation of academic freedom, “more than a thousand professors and graduate students have pledged not to speak at the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) until the administration provides a ‘full and transparent’ account of the events that led to the firing of a well-regarded history professor.” The tenure-track professor, via social media, recently criticized a decision of the history department chair to reject a grant the professor had secured. In a letter to fellow members of the history department, the professor complained about the “decision to fire him without first consulting with other faculty members.” Ole Miss has announced it will allow the termination to proceed.

UVA Student Government Restricts Access to Recordings After Conservatives Used Footage to Criticize Legislation
Rachelle Hernandez | College Fix | December 16, 2020

“The student government at the University of Virginia recently decided to hide public access to its video recordings after Young America’s Foundation used footage from a meeting to create a video critical of several members. The foundation had flagged a student government meeting in November during which its members voted to support the creation of a ‘strike system’ for professors accused of making comments deemed ‘offensive.’” Access to recordings has been restored.

State and Federal Policies

Forming Open and Robust University Minds Act
Georgia General Assembly | 2021 Session

The Georgia General Assembly convened for the new year on January 11. On its to-do list: consider HB1, the Forming Open and Robust University Minds Act, the first bill prefiled for this session. Major provisions of the FORUM Act include “to prevent the creation of ‘free speech zones’ at public institutions of higher education; to allow for reasonable, viewpoint-neutral, and narrowly tailored time, place, and manner restrictions[;] …to prohibit material and substantial disruption of protected expressive activity at public institutions of higher education; [and] to prohibit public institutions of higher education from denying benefits to or otherwise discriminating against a student organization on the basis of the student organization’s religious, political, or ideological positions.” The act appears to be modelled on legislation from the American Legislative Exchange Council.

Op-eds and Thought Pieces

Resisting Cancel Culture
Nadine Strossen | American Council of Trustees and Alumni | December 3, 2020

After defining cancel culture and marshalling evidence that open inquiry is increasingly curtailed on the nation’s campuses, former ACLU President Nadine Strossen writes that “cancel culture creates a climate of fear, in which too many members of the campus community engage in self-censorship.” As a corrective to cancel culture, she suggests a pedagogy based on the law school model: “I am convinced that key teaching approaches that are prevalent in law schools have universal benefits at all educational levels, including the specific benefit of fostering a free expression culture. …Law students are trained not only to answer every question, but also to question every answer.”

What the 2020 Debate Over Free Speech Missed
Sean Illing | Vox | December 22, 2020

“Cancel culture, whatever you think of it, is a problem within free speech, not a problem of free speech. This is a paradox that stretches all the way back to the invention of democracy and rhetoric in Ancient Greece. The Greeks even created dueling conceptions of free speech—isegoria (the right of everyone to participate in public debate) and parrhesia (the right to speak without limits)—to highlight the conflicts that emerge within open societies. …The issue here isn’t whether we have free speech or not. It’s about what kind of free speech culture we want to preserve.”

Teaching Our Merciless Racial Politics to the Next Generation
Mona Charen | Bulwark | December 30, 2020

Admissions officers at the University of Tennessee pressured student Mimi Groves to withdraw, after video surfaced of Groves using a racial slur three years earlier. The video was posted by Groves’ high school classmate, Jimmy Galligan and reported by the New York Times. The author criticizes the Times’ coverage and those who pressured the university: “This isn’t just a story about kids behaving badly (both of them). It’s much more a story of adults who’ve lost their bearings. Galligan should not be able to inflict such a disproportionate punishment on Groves for a years-old infraction. And he wouldn’t have had the power to do so without the dereliction of the adults up and down the line. The parents, alumni, coaches, and others at the University of Tennessee who issued a summary judgment on Groves… are betraying their duty to act with fairness and to demonstrate a grown-ups’ understanding. And every adult who participated in this social media auto-da-fé is guilty too.”

The New Strategy to Suppress Conservative Voices on Campus
Adam Hoffman | National Review | January 4, 2021

The chair of the right-leaning party within Princeton University’s American Whig-Cliosophic Society describes his frustration with the organization’s Governing Council after they refused to approve invitations to conservative speakers. He concludes: “Free-speech-advocacy groups must recognize that disinvitations are no longer the standard for quashing debate and curbing conservative views. Campus activists have become wily. By holding back invitations absolutely, they can quietly keep students in their echo chambers. Today, right-leaning speakers are shut down before they can even open their mouths.”

A College President Responds to the Rioters at the U.S. Capitol
Michael S. Roth | Inside Higher Ed | January 7, 2021

“Democratic practice depends on conversation, and conversation depends on nonviolence, agreed-upon facts and the ability to listen to views different from one’s own. …Once again, we in higher education must recommit to encouraging the kind of democratic practice that is fully in sync with the goals of liberal education: habits of discussion, compromise, collective aspiration and care for the vulnerable. Our students and colleagues have planted those seeds, our neighbors have nurtured them and I am confident in the harvest.”

Big Reads

The First Amendment Under Stress: A Survey of UW-Madison Students’ Views on Free Speech and Religious Liberties
Tommy G. Thompson Center on Public Leadership | January 2021

The Tommy G. Thompson Center on Public Leadership and the University of Wisconsin Survey Center polled 530 undergraduates at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “As this report describes, many UW students do not understand what constitutes protected speech or activity under the First Amendment. Moreover, some of their responses reveal substantial opposition to established free speech principles and religious liberties.” Among the findings: “Nearly 40% of students believe the government should restrict the speech of climate change deniers” and “63% believe government should punish hate speech.”

The Free Speech Wars
Charlotte Lydia Riley | Manchester University Press | January 2021

This edited volume on free speech includes essays by British and Continental academics on contemporary and historical free speech controversies. American readers will be interested in the section of essays on campus free speech, with essays about familiar sorts of controversies such as the deplatforming of controversial speakers. Others include the deactivation of student activists’ ID cards during a visit by the Queen, as well as how European academics compare free speech controversies on their campuses to those on U.S. campuses.