It’s not exactly a surprise at this point when we see another headline about a speech getting shut down on some campus. Indeed, in just the last few weeks, we’ve seen three high-profile attacks on free speech on college campuses, ranging from an alleged assault on Riley Gaines to the shouting down of Ian Hayworth to the harassment of yours truly and Michael Knowles.
But the conversation about the dire state of free speech on campus is often anecdotal, leading some to question how truly widespread censorship is in our higher education system. Well, new data from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) statistically show that it’s not just guest speakers: attacks on professors’ academic freedom are also becoming far more common.
FIRE’s report examined instances where scholars faced an attempt to punish them for their speech and/or ideas. These include a University of Washington professor who was stripped of their chair position for criticizing Israel, a Concordia University professor who was suspended for criticizing his university’s embrace of “woke-ism,” and many other similar situations.
According to FIRE, these kinds of targeted attacks on academic freedom were exponentially more common in 2022 than in prior decades. They report that in 2002, for example, there were just four of these instances recorded, whereas in 2022 there were 145!
That’s a 36-fold increase in just two decades.
This kind of targeted backlash is very much a recent phenomenon. FIRE says that there have been 509 such instances in the last three years, since 2020, which is nearly as many instances as their database has recorded in the prior 20 years combined.
“Even one attempted sanction is one too many,” FIRE Director of Polling and Analytics Sean Stevens said. “Over a thousand tells us there are serious problems on American campuses when it comes to free expression and academic freedom. Schools need to recommit to implementing policies fostering campus environments that reject attempts to punish protected speech.”
It’s not just angry progressives leading this charge, either. According to FIRE, a majority of censorship attempts, 52%, came from the scholar’s Left. But they also say 41% came from the scholar’s Right. They cite the right-wing organization Turning Point USA’s “Professor Watchlist” as a particularly pernicious example of groups on the Right leading the charge to punish academics for disfavored speech.
Whether it’s coming from the Left or Right, all these censorship attempts should be condemned. Of course professors cannot break campus rules or harass anyone. But when it comes to merely voicing their opinions on public issues, they’ve just as much right to free speech as do students. And it’s impossible to have an academic environment committed to the discovery of truth if you might get “canceled” and face potentially-ruinous professional backlash for saying the wrong thing.
“Cancel culture is particularly pernicious when it targets people charged with discovering and disseminating knowledge,” said FIRE Director of Faculty Outreach Komi Frey, lead author of the report. “Vocal, dogmatic minorities on the left and the right are trying to restrict the range of acceptable ideas in institutions of higher education, and this should alarm us all. You do not need to agree with a scholar’s teaching, research, or extramural speech to recognize that censorship is not the answer.”