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Students seeking retribution for professors’ speech on the rise

Attempts to get college professors fired for their views have increased dramatically in recent years with the ascent of “cancel culture,” according to a new report. 

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), formerly known as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, released a report Thursday titled “Scholars Under Fire: Attempts to Sanction Scholars from 2000 to 2022” that examines more than 1,000 attempts to sanction professors over the past quarter century.

The report found that efforts to censor college professors have increased dramatically in recent years. While just four professors faced such actions in 2000, that number exploded to a record high of 213 in 2021. The number of sanction attempts in the past three years, from 2020 to 2022, accounted for nearly half (47%) of all censorship efforts since 2000.

By contrast, the total number of calls for censorship between 2010 and 2019 only accounted for 43% of all efforts since 2000, while the first decade of the century accounted for just 10%. Overall, FIRE discovered 1,080 attempts to sanction scholars from 2000 to 2022.

An analysis of the origins of the censorship attempts reveals that 52% of calls for scholars to face retribution for their views or statements came from the political left, while 44% came from the political right. The predominant political affiliation of those calling for sanctions against professors differed based on the category that the source of the censorship demands fall into.

Among sanction attempts that originated from graduate and undergraduate students as well as scholars, the overwhelming majority came from the left side of the political spectrum. Meanwhile, a slightly higher share of complaints arising from administrators came from those on the right. A significantly higher percentage of sanction attempts among both the general public and politicians originated from the right than the left.

In a statement, FIRE Director of Faculty Outreach, Komi Frey, attributed the rise in calls for termination or punishment of college faculty members to “cancel culture,” where individuals or groups seek to punish those with dissenting opinions. “Cancel culture is particularly pernicious when it targets people charged with discovering and disseminating knowledge,” Frey said.

“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.”

FIRE’s director of Polling and Analytics, Sean Stevens, added: “Even one attempted sanction is too many. 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.”

The report provides specific examples of events in U.S. history that contributed to a rise in sanction attempts, including the election of Donald Trump as president in 2016 and the #MeToo movement designed to raise awareness for sexual harassment and misconduct in the workplace that first emerged the following year. Additionally, FIRE identified the death of George Floyd in police custody in May 2020 as the source of a “tsunami of sanction attempts.”

An individual’s views on “controversial sociopolitical issues” frequently led to sanction attempts, with a professor’s views on race the most common source of calls for censorship.

Additional topics that led to pushes for retribution include, in descending order from most frequent to least frequent: gender, religion, sexuality, police and military protests, the conflict between Israel and Palestine, COVID-19, economic inequality, terrorism, health, free speech, elections, foreign affairs, court and trial-related matters, immigration, abortion, election, climate and environmental concerns, the Second Amendment and the Russia-Ukraine war.

Calls for censorship based on a professor’s views on race were far more likely to originate from the left than the right, as was the case with gender, free speech and immigration. On the other hand, those on the right were more likely to call for sanctions over a scholar’s view on Israel and Palestine, economic inequality and terrorism.

As for what happens after the calls for censorship, 698 of the 1,080 censorship attempts resulted in some sort of sanction, specifically the investigation or termination of the professor in question. More than 200 sanction attempts resulted in the termination of a targeted professor, while an additional 162 resulted in a suspension.

While FIRE’s database documenting incidents of attempts to get professors fired will continue to be updated, the data included in this report only covers sanction attempts prior to March 8 of this year. As of April 21, the total number of professors who have faced calls for censorship since 2000 has risen to 1,094, meaning that 14 additional scholars were added to the database since the report’s completion.

Ryan Foley is a reporter for The Christian Post. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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