Academic Freedom Under Fire As New Report Shows Increasing Sanctions For Scholars’ Protected Speech

(Screenshot/YouTube/Harvard Graduate School of Education)

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Alexa Schwerha Contributor
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The number of university scholars that were sanctioned for speech that is constitutionally protected under the First Amendment significantly increased over the past 20 years, according to a new study published by watchdog group Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE).

The number of attempts to punish scholars for speech opponents disagree with spiked from four in 2000 to 145 in 2022, according to FIRE. The vast majority of these attempts by critics of the professors’ speech were successful and about 20% resulted in termination. (RELATED: Half Of Professors Believe Diversity Statements ‘Violate Academic Freedom,’ Survey Finds)

There were 1,080 sanction attempts between 2000 and 2022, according to the report.

“Cancel culture is particularly pernicious when it targets people charged with discovering and disseminating knowledge,” Komi Frey, FIRE director of faculty outreach and lead author of the report, said in a statement sent to the Daily Caller News Foundation. “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.”

The majority of the sanction attempts were made by critics to the political left of the speaker, while 41% of attempts came from those to the right of the speaker, according to the report. On-campus student groups that called for scholars to be censored were most often left-leaning, while off-campus groups that demanded sanctions for speech came from the political right.

The largest spike in censorship calls came in 2021 with 213 after conservative nonprofit Turning Point USA (TPUSA) spotlighted 61 professors on its “Professor Watchlist,” the report reads. The watchlist “is a carefully aggregated list sourced by published news stories detailing instances of radical behavior among college professors” with a goal of highlighting “professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom,” according to its website.

There were 509 scholars punished during the past three years which almost matches the total number of scholars punished in 20 years before 2020, which tallies 571. Only 6% of sanctioned speech was classified as “contemptuous or malicious speech,” which involves speech that is “meant to offend, malign, or endorse violence,” according to FIRE.

“Even one attempted sanction is one too many,” Sean Stevens, FIRE director of polling and analytics, said in its report. “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.”

FIRE has defended professors who come under fire from critics on both the left and right side of the political aisle. The nonprofit backed University of Washington professor Stuart Reges after the university punished him for refusing to include the approved land acknowledgement in his classroom syllabus, and has also been a stern opponent of a Florida law that professors worry could limit what they teach in their classrooms.

TPUSA did not immediately respond to the DCNF’s request for comment.

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