Latest News and Commentary: National

September 1, 2021
By Keith E. Whittington
Volokh Conspiracy, Reason Magazine

Excerpt: A new episode of The Academic Freedom Podcast from the Academic Freedom Alliance is now available. Subscribe through your favorite platform so you don't miss an episode.

This episode of the podcast features my conversation with David French, the former president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and current senior editor at The Dispatch. We talk about his experience in the trenches defending free speech on college campuses, the growing hostility to liberal values in some segments of the American right, and recent legislative efforts to ban "divisive concepts" and "critical race theory" in American schools, including state universities.

August 31, 2021
By Foundation for Individual Rights in Education

A new report from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education shows an alarming 74% success rate for campaigns targeting collegiate scholars for their constitutionally protected speech — and the data suggest the worst is yet to come.

“Scholars Under Fire” documents attempts to penalize scholars for speech and expression that, although often controversial, is protected by the First Amendment. The research includes an interactive database examining over 400 incidents since 2015 — searchable by faculty characteristics, the source of the outrage, whether the pressure is from the political left or right of the scholar, the outcome, and more.

“Scholars should not lose their jobs for expressing controversial views,” said FIRE Research Fellow Komi German, one of the report’s authors. “But too often, that’s exactly what happens. Disagreement should be the catalyst for debate, not a license to silence disagreeable opinions and penalize those who hold them.”

August 31, 2021
By Samuel J. Abrams
American Enterprise Institute

Excerpt: The cancel culture movement and forces which silence dissent and disagreement have spread from our nation’s college campuses into high schools across the country. Students today are regularly afraid to speak their minds or to question the ideas and theories they are taught. They habitually self-censor, fearful of saying the wrong thing and suffering undue damage including very real reputational personal, social and professional costs.

While it is tempting to blame teachers for creating a culture of self-induced silence, parents, communities, and politicos alike should really be holding school boards and administrators — those directly responsible for the curriculum in high schools — answerable for the current mess. Unlike professors, who have a fair amount of autonomy in their classrooms, high school teachers have far less discretion. Even with tenure and union protection, speaking out against the seemingly omnipotent zeitgeist of illiberal demands can be career-ending, as was the case for former Grace Church School teacher Paul Rossi when he publicly disagreed with the school’s powerful Office of Community Engagement this past April.

August 31, 2021
By Frederick M. Hess
American Enterprise Institute

Excerpt: Those untroubled by woke attacks on campus speech and free inquiry like to insist that the issue is nothing more than fake news drummed up by the right-wing echo chamber. Well, the invaluable Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) this week issued a new report that exposes the cynicism of the “nothing to see here” crowd.

The number of professors, graduate students, and instructors subject to formal complaints shot up fourfold between 2015 and 2020 and the number subjected to petitions increased more than tenfold over that same stretch. There were just 24 total incidents in 2015, but 113 in 2020 (when many campuses were remote) and 61 in just the first half of 2021. Of the 426 attacks FIRE documents over the five-year period, three-quarters have resulted in a sanction of the scholar — with a quarter of them resulting in scholars losing their job.

A deeply troubling trend is the explosion of such efforts launched by undergraduate students. Report co-author Komi German told Inside Higher Education that “It’s a huge red flag for those concerned about students’ tolerance of dissenting views.”

August 31, 2021
By Colleen Flaherty
Inside Higher Ed

Excerpt: The number of scholars targeted for their speech has risen dramatically since 2015, and undergraduates increasingly are to blame, according to a database of these incidents released today by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

Undergraduates aren’t the only ones seeking to censor graduate students, instructors, professors and other researchers, FIRE’s database and an accompanying report make clear. But undergraduates’ prevalence within FIRE’s new database concerns the pro-speech group nonetheless. Other would-be censors include politicians and the general public. But threats to scholars’ free speech increasingly originate from within the campus community, not limited to but especially students, according to the report. The database currently logs 426 incidents since 2015. Some 74 percent of incidents thus far resulted in some kind of sanction -- including an investigation alone or voluntary resignation -- against the scholar.

August 31, 2021
By Jordan Howell
Foundation for Individual Rights in Education

On Aug. 25, 2017 at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, graduate student and adjunct lecturer Courtney Lawton attended a small protest on the quad of her campus, adjacent to where a student group was recruiting new members. The group, Turning Point USA, publishes the controversial Professor Watchlist, which has been criticized for targeting college professors who espouse liberal viewpoints. After learning that the organization was recruiting members, Lawton and others hastily arranged a counter-protest, where she displayed a sign that read, “Just say No! to Neo-Fascism,” called the conservative student behind the recruitment table — who had her camera rolling — a “neo-fascist,” and flipped her off.

Within days of the incident, TPUSA posted a video of Lawton’s remarks online and, after public outrage mounted, her teaching assignments were cancelled. Weeks later, after three Nebraska state senators wrote an open letter to UNL questioning the university’s ability to “conduct an honest investigation when a conservative student” is targeted by what they describe as “discriminatory actions,” Lawton’s teaching contract was allowed to expire. The university’s senior leaders pledged to government officials that she would never again teach at the university.

August 31, 2021
By Alexandra Desanctis
National Review

Excerpt: Earlier this month, I covered a recent decision by the school board inLoudoun County, Va., which enacted a permissive gender-identity policy. The new rules permit students to use restrooms and locker rooms, as well as compete in sports, on the basis of the gender with which they identify rather than their biological sex. In the debate leading up to the policy’s enactment, a Loudoun County physical-education teacher, Tanner Cross, was suspended from his job at Leesburg Elementary School after publicly disagreeing with aspects of the policy based on his Christian faith.

After being suspended for sharing his view of the rules, Cross sued Loudoun County Public Schools, alleging that the district had violated his free-speech rights. In a decision yesterday, the Virginia Supreme Court agreed with Cross, upholding an earlier ruling from Virginia circuit-court judge James E. Plowman, who halted the LCPS suspension against Cross.

 

August 31, 2021
By Matt Taibbi
TK News

Excerpt: The guests for NPR’s just-released On The Media episode about the dangers of free speech included Andrew Marantz, author of an article called, “Free Speech is Killing Us”; P.E. Moskowitz, author of “The Case Against Free Speech”; Susan Benesch, director of the “Dangerous Speech Project”; and Berkeley professor John Powell, whose contribution was to rip John Stuart Mill’s defense of free speech in On Liberty as “wrong.” That’s about right for NPR, which for years now has regularly congratulated itself for being a beacon of diversity while expunging every conceivable alternative point of view.

The essence of arguments made by all of NPR’s guests is that the modern conception of speech rights is based upon John Stuart Mill’s outdated conception of harm, which they summarized as saying, “My freedom to swing my fist ends at the tip of your nose.” Because, they say, we now know that people can be harmed by something other than physical violence.

August 30, 2021
By Lindsie Rank
Foundation for Individual Rights in Education

Excerpt: When Sierra Dyson, editor of the editorially independent student newspaper Texan News Service, received a demand letter signed by a New York attorney and threatening a lawsuit, she probably didn’t imagine things would get worse. But they did. Dyson was confident the litigation threat was frivolous, since it concerned articles that had been written some three years ago. And she was right. The defamation claims were not only well outside the statute of limitations, but were also without merit; even if the letter had been timely, the TNS articles weren’t defamatory.

But when Tarleton administrators learned of the threat, they ensured that its unfounded demands would be followed. Administrators gave Dyson a choice: Comply with the demand letter or the student paper would lose its university funding.

August 30, 2021
By Oyin Adedoyin
Chronicle of Higher Education

Excerpt: Every year Seth Masket, a political-science professor and director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver, teaches a congressional-simulation class. The charged political environment has made the class harder to pull off. “I’m fortunately not teaching that class this coming quarter, but it would be tricky if I did,” he said. Experts say political tensions have served to suppress all sorts of speech. “It is a tense time on campuses,” said Amy Binder, a professor and chair of the department of sociology at the University of California at San Diego. “So I’m seeing it as more of a larger scale phenomenon than just the conservative students.”

In a survey of 20,000 college students, 60 percent said they felt they had to keep some opinions to themselves for fear of how they would be received. That includes 75 percent of students who identified themselves as “strong Republicans,” and also 63 percent of Black students.