All posts filed under: Free Speech

The Journal of Controversial Ideas Is Here

The long-awaited first issue of Journal of Controversial Ideas (JCI), which allows academics of all disciplines to publish peer-reviewed research anonymously, has just been released. In an editorial leading the online issue, the co-editors, philosophers Peter Singer, Francesca Minerva, and Jeff McMahan, write: “By permitting publication under a pseudonym, we hope to enable authors to fulfil their duty to pursue the truth without putting their careers or physical or mental security at risk. Intellectual and moral progress should not require heroes or martyrs.” All three co-editors have courted controversy, especially Singer and Minerva. Singer has for decades been subject to denunciation for his views on abortion, animal rights, and disability. In 2012, Minerva was inundated with hate mail for an article she coauthored defending “post-birth abortion.” Both have received death threats. In Singer’s and Minerva’s cases, though, the heat came mainly from outraged non-academics. More recently, threats to free speech at universities have come from within. In their editorial, Singer, Minerva, and McMahan draw attention to: …a surge in open letters and petitions denouncing researchers …

Weaponizing Social Justice to Protect School Administrators and Discredit Whistle-blowers: A Canadian Case Study

On March 6th, I published a Quillette article describing how Robyn Bourgeois, the newly installed vice-provost for Indigenous engagement at Canada’s Brock University, had been seeking to mobilize her peers against the anonymous operator of an obscure (and by then, defunct) Twitter account called @BrockCivis. On her social-media channels and at the university’s “Two Row Council” (a body tasked with managing Brock’s efforts at “Indigenization, reconciliation, and decolonization”), Bourgeois accused the account of operating a racist and “criminal” program of “cyber harassment” that targeted her in particular, and Indigenous people more generally. No one at Brock would feel “safe,” she said, in a world where @BrockCivis is still “allowed to dehumanize the highest-ranking Indigenous person at Brock” (by which she meant herself). At a February 22nd Council meeting, a recording of which was subsequently made available to me, school officials brainstormed with Bourgeois about how they might investigate the nefarious account. The contents of @BrockCivis, one participant suggested, were a threat not just to Brock, but to Indigenous people all over Canada. Later in the …

Support for Scottish Independence Wanes as the SNP Is Engulfed in Scandal

I live in Scotland. The country known for its beautiful scenery, bagpipes and kilts, and that iconic Scotch whisky. Remember the spelling, or you’ll be put in your place, for Scots are a much more direct bunch than their southerly neighbours. But Scotland is not open to visitors at the moment thanks to the pandemic, so we have all this scenery and whisky to ourselves. What we presently can share with outsiders, however, is a political farce worthy of a banana republic. At the centre of it is First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the Scottish National Party, whose reputation hangs in the balance, and at stake are her dreams of securing independence for Scotland. The debacle over the Alex Salmond case has been covered extensively, and it’s as fast-moving as a political TV drama. The central questions are: did Sturgeon intentionally mislead the Scottish Parliament, and was there a conspiracy to take down Alex Salmond, the former First Minister and Sturgeon’s ex-best friend, orchestrated by Sturgeon and her close circle of trusted allies? …

We Can Revisit (And Even Replace) the Classic Books We Teach Children—Without Cancelling Them

Earlier this month, Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced it would stop publishing six Dr. Seuss titles because they included several drawings with racial stereotypes. As the press release put it, “These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong. Ceasing sales of these books is only part of our commitment and our broader plan to ensure Dr. Seuss Enterprises’ catalog represents and supports all communities and families.” The New York Times published opposing responses. Columnist Charles M. Blow celebrated the news, linking the books to the racist stereotypes in Tarzan and Our Gang that had damaged his self-esteem growing up. He argued that these images should be weeded out because they lead children to internalize a sense of inferiority. His conservative counterpart Ross Douthat, on the other hand, described the decision as evidence that companies are abandoning free-speech principles in order to protect their image from progressive attacks. This self-censorship has frightening implications as they have unfettered control over major cultural franchises and landmarks. As one might imagine, Fox News was less restrained. Tucker …

The Campaign of Lies Against Journalist Jesse Singal—And Why It Matters

One of the odd-seeming aspects of progressive cancel culture is that many of the figures targeted by mobs aren’t especially conservative in their views. Rather, the victims tend to be heterodox liberals who simply offer a dissenting opinion on one or more compartmentalized issues—since these liberal targets tend to operate in left-leaning professional and social milieus through which a mob can exercise leverage and demand concessions. There are numerous popular writers and broadcasters who promote deeply conservative themes without attracting any notice from cancel mobs—even as lifelong leftists within such niche genres as Young Adult fiction, LGBT theatre, and knitting-trade journalism are excommunicated on the basis of minor verbal infractions. In some notable mobbings chronicled by Quillette, in fact, the targeted dissenter wasn’t even offering an opinion per se, but merely highlighting facts we’re all expected to ignore. James Damore wasn’t fired by Google because he gratuitously insulted women, but because he pointed out real differences between the sexes. In Canadian literary circles, Margaret Atwood became reviled among a progressive fringe when she argued (correctly, …

Britain’s Academic Free Speech Bill

The British Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, recently set out proposals to strengthen free speech and academic freedom at universities in England. These include: appointing an Academic Freedom Champion with a remit to champion free speech and investigate alleged breaches thereof; stipulating that universities will have to “actively promote” freedom of speech on campus; and introducing a tort that will allow individuals to seek redress for breaches of their rights to free speech and academic freedom. The announcement sparked a lively debate in the British press and on social media, with some commentators welcoming the proposed changes, and others arguing that they are unnecessary and/or actively harmful. As I see it, this debate can be broken down into two key questions. Are free speech and academic freedom under threat at English universities? And if so, are the new proposals worth supporting? In this essay, I will argue that the answer to the first question is an unequivocal “yes,” and the answer to the second question is a qualified “yes.” Before proceeding: what is meant by “free …

The Threat to Academic Freedom: From Anecdotes to Data

Academia has become a closed system, a moral community defined by a set of sacred progressive values. The surge of no-platformings which took off in America in 2015 and hit Britain in 2018–19, or the fivefold jump in the rate of cancelling American academics which took place in 2019, present merely the tip of an iceberg of self-censorship and conformity. In this essay, I present extensive new survey data on the scale of the problem in the US, Canada, and Britain from my new report for the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology entitled “Academic Freedom in Crisis: Punishment, Political Discrimination, and Self-Censorship.” This leads, at the end, into a discussion of policy solutions, where I argue that only government intervention can break the spiral of conformity gripping the contemporary university. The British government’s recent policy white paper on academic freedom, which adopted most of the recommendations of my previous co-authored report, “Academic Freedom in the UK,” is a blueprint that other jurisdictions are invited to follow. My current report represents an expansion …

The Problem With Linking Censorship to Incitement

Once we have reinstated this distinction between words and violence, we might then move on to consider the question of how the one can lead to the other. This is perhaps the most compelling argument for restrictions on speech. If it can be determined that certain forms of speech incite violence, then there is a case to be made that responsibility is thereby shared between the perpetrator of the crime and the individual who provoked it. The Rwandan genocide of 1994 is frequently cited in order to demonstrate a causal relationship between speech and vio­lence. The RTLM radio broadcasts that called on Hutus to “cut down the tall trees,” and described the Tutsi minority as “cock­roaches” and “snakes”—dehumanising language reminiscent of the Nazi propaganda that depicted Jews as rats—are said to be culpable in the stirring up of a maelstrom of hatred that resulted in the murder of almost a million people. Incitement to violence has always been an offence under English common law, but the definition has also been open to subjective interpretation. At …

How a Single Anonymous Twitter Account Caused an ‘Indigenized’ Canadian University to Unravel

In a recently published Quillette article, Political Science professor Frances Widdowson described the difficulties that Canadian university administrators face when they seek to “Indigenize” their schools. Everyone in academia seems to agree that Indigenization is an urgent task, but the particulars are typically ill-defined. As Widdowson reports in a newly published book, these efforts at Indigenization (sometimes referred to as “decolonization”) comprise a combination of symbolic gestures, ramped-up affirmative-action programs, mandatory anti-racism courses, and demands that Indigenous folklore be accorded epistemological stature on par with science. At Concordia University in Montreal, for instance, a dozen researchers are collaborating on a project called “Decolonizing Light,” whose aim is to “investigate the reproduction of colonialism in and through physics and higher physics education.” Our scientific understanding of light as constituting electromagnetic radiation perceptible to the human eye, these scholars explain, is the historical product of “a white male dominated field [i.e. physics] disconnected from social life and geopolitical history. [Its] narrative both constitutes and reproduces inequality.” Widdowson (who isn’t Indigenous) has been criticized for casting doubt on …

‘More Weight’: An Academic’s Guide to Surviving Campus Witch Hunts

In the fall of 2020, I became the target of a cancellation campaign after I’d suggested that the best policy for a university seeking to support underrepresented groups, while staying true to its mission of producing knowledge, is to ensure that hiring and admissions decisions are based on merit. It’s an idea that directly reflects bedrock principles advanced during the Civil Rights movement, and which are still supported by a large majority of Americans. But to the mob, I was just an irredeemable enemy of progress and social justice. As part of the now-standard playbook, my attackers formed a Twitter mob and wrote a denunciatory public letter, cynically misrepresenting my views, demanding that my research and teaching at the University of Chicago be restricted, and urging that my department formally denounce me. Fortunately, at a crucial juncture in the proceedings, the Free Speech Union launched a change.org petition in my support, which was signed by more than 13,000 people. (The list probably includes many readers of this essay. Thank you so much for your support!) …