Campaigns Against Scholars for Speech Quadrupled in Recent Years
Jason Kilborn, a law professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, learned the hard way about how easy it is for the free exercise of speech to lead to a witch hunt on today’s campus. Kilborn posed a question on a Civil Procedure II final exam – which had been used for years – based on an employment discrimination scenario that referenced redacted racial slurs.
This should have been well within the bounds of academic freedom. And the exam question made sense, given the use of employment discrimination law. “These hypotheticals really force these students – future lawyers – to be prepared for the messy reality they’ll be faced with in the outside word,” he told the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). Nevertheless, Kilborn became a target of an investigation and a campaign to ruin his career and reputation.
On Tuesday, FIRE released a disturbing report on the damage being done to careers and lives by these kinds of desultory smear campaigns against scholars. Examining a database of over 400 cases since 2015, FIRE reports:
While many assume that such attacks come from the political left, FIRE reports that 34 percent of the attacks came from the political right. This fits with a CATO Institute report that 62 percent of Americans, including a majority of moderates and liberals, report that they are afraid to speak their mind about politics.
An incisive piece by Anne Applebaum in Atlantic also appeared yesterday that described the human costs of these attacks on free speech. Some excerpts from her essay:
Here is the first thing that happens once you have been accused of breaking a social code, when you find yourself at the center of a social-media storm because of something you said or purportedly said. The phone stops ringing. People stop talking to you. You become toxic …
For many, intellectual and professional life grind to a halt. “I was doing the best work in my life when I heard of this investigation happening,” one academic told me. “It all stopped. I have not written another paper since …
[I]solation plus public shaming plus loss of income are severe sanctions for adults, with long-term personal and psychological repercussions – especially because the “sentences” in these cases are of indeterminate length.
Apologies, Applebaum writes, “will be parsed, examined for ‘sincerity’ – and then rejected.” She compares the speech cancellation process to the authoritarian mechanisms of the Argentine junta and Franco’s Spain, as well as to the ‘troikas’ of Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
Not surprisingly, Applebaum reports that many victims of these campaigns contemplate suicide. More than a few have killed themselves.
This illiberal attack on free speech is finally generating organized opposition. FIRE announced it is launching a Faculty Legal Defense Fund with the support of the Stanton Foundation, created by Dr. Frank Stanton, long-time president of CBS and initiator of the first televised presidential debate – the famous “Kennedy-Nixon” debates.
One of the beneficiaries of FIRE’s defense fund is Jason Kilborn, who kept his job after it came to his defense. Another group that defends scholars is the Academic Freedom Alliance.
Protect The 1st is happy to join the league of defenders of academic freedom and campus speech from authoritarian shamers, cancellers and trolls of the right and left.