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Cancel culture harms everyone and helps no one, free speech leaders warn

A pair of leaders at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education published an essay pleading with college administrators to protect free expression and to reject “cancel culture.”

“College leaders rarely get it right when it comes to campus free-speech controversies,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff and Vice President Nico Perrino write in the Persuasion. “Too often their responses are confused, slow, ambivalent, contradictory or downright illiberal.”

The essay tells academic leaders that cancelling professors for perceived offensive speech helps no one.

Lukianoff and and Perrino said:

College leaders please nobody when they try to please everybody in a cancel campaign. So why try?

Instead, why not defend the core enlightenment mission of a college, which the University of Chicago describes as the “discovery, improvement, and dissemination of knowledge”? That language appears in the Kalven Report, which the university commissioned in 1967 to address the tension between open inquiry and activism in a university environment. The report states that “a university must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry and maintain an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures.”

The pair cited several studies that found apologies for statements only furthered a desire for punishment:

Research backs this up. A 2019 study of whether apologizing works found that “when a prominent figure apologizes for a controversial statement, individuals are either unaffected or become more likely to desire that the individual be punished.” The scholar Cass Sunstein, of Harvard Law School, conducted a similar study and found that “an apology tended to decrease rather than to increase overall support for those who said or did things that many people consider offensive.”

“A strong, unequivocal defense of the right to free inquiry and expression after the campaign begins is important,” Lukianoff and Perrino said. “But much of the groundwork for a successful defense begins before the campaign” to punish someone begins, they added.

They described the steps administrators should take, including teaching students about free speech and not violating First Amendment law.

Read the full essay and their solutions.

IMAGE: William Perugini/Shutterstock

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