The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent

Journal of Free Speech Law: "Cancel Culture on Campus: A Critical Analysis," by Prof. Thomas Kelly (Princeton)


Just published as part of the "Non-Governmental Restrictions on Free Speech" symposium; here's the Introduction (the article is here):

To what extent are free speech and open discussion being stifled on college campuses?

This question inspires sharp disagreement. Where some see a serious problem, others deny that there is any genuine reason for concern. Notably, for example, my fellow panelist Professor Mary Anne Franks has criticized what she calls "the myth of the censorious campus" while decrying the "false narrative" of political intolerance on college campuses. Professor Jeffrey Adam Sachs similarly writes of "the myth" of a campus free speech crisis, which he associates with a kind of "moral panic" due to conservative "hysteria." In a piece entitled "Free Speech on Campus Is Doing Just Fine, Thank You," Columbia University president Lee Bollinger, a noted scholar of free speech and the First Amendment, dismisses concerns about the current situation for free speech and open discussion as being due to

a handful of sensationalist incidents on campus—incidents sometimes manufactured for their propaganda value. They shed no light on the current reality of university culture.

Many similar expressions of this general theme can be found; skepticism that there is a genuine problem is well-represented both inside and outside academia. Indeed, skeptics often claim not only that there is nothing to worry about, but that worrying is itself pernicious, inasmuch as doing so plays into the hands of reactionary political interests.

Notwithstanding the frequent reassurances that there is nothing to worry about when it comes to free speech on campus, and even the warnings that worrying about such things is actually harmful, I confess to being among those who worry. Much of my concern relates to the phenomenon that is now widely known as cancel culture. The definition of "cancel culture" is contested. For this reason, and in order to zero in on the phenomenon that I want to explore, in the next section I offer a number of cases that I believe would qualify as examples of cancel culture under any reasonable understanding of that notion. The cases that I offer are not hypothetical ones but actual cases involving current Princeton undergraduates. Although they of course differ from one another and from other examples of cancel culture in their idiosyncratic details, I believe that in important respects they are broadly representative of the phenomenon as it exists on contemporary college campuses.

Having zeroed in on the target phenomenon, I will offer an analysis of what I take to be some of its most important features. I will be particularly concerned with understanding cancel culture as a rational phenomenon: on the account that I offer in Part II, students who actively participate in cancel culture, or who attempt to cancel their fellow students, are often acting with impeccable rationality given their aims and preferences, even if their behavior is objectionable in other ways. In Part III, I turn to the most common considerations offered by the skeptics and argue that they are unconvincing. In the Conclusion, I note a number of factors that might lead us to systematically underestimate the severity of the problem.