April 21, 2023 - 7:00am

Attempts to sanction academics for their speech have soared over the last three years, a new report has found. Research by FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression) shows that the number of college and university scholars subjected to attempted punishment in the past three years (509) almost matches the corresponding number for the 20 years prior to 2020 (571).

The astronomical rise coincides with Donald Trump’s election and the #MeToo movement, which sparked a surge in sanction attempts. Between 2017-2019, there were 252 sanction attempts, compared to a total of 319 over the previous 17 years. But these figures are dwarfed by what the report describes as a “tsunami of sanction attempts” shortly after George Floyd’s murder in 2020. In 2020 alone there were 151 sanction attempts, with 87 occurring in response to race-related expression (58%).

Credit: FIRE

A sanction attempt constitutes anything from open letters and petitions to outright termination of employment. Its targets are varied, but among the most prominent are the humanities disciplines (402 attempts) and white and/or male scholars. Nearly four-fifths (845) of sanction attempts involved white scholars (78%), compared to 92 involving black scholars (9%), the next highest group.

Recent examples of sanction attempts include Tabia Lee, the faculty director of De Anza College’s Office of Equity, Social Justice and Multicultural Education, who reported that her contract was not being renewed after she questioned her institution’s “orthodoxy” on DEI. Elsewhere, Harvard’s Kenneth Roth was denied fellowship over tweets which were critical of Israel — a decision for which the university later apologised.

While those initiating the sanction attempts largely come from the Left within institutions, a growing number have been coming from the Right outside of it. The graph below shows the pace at which Government officials from the Right have started sanction attempts: in the last three years, there have been 39, already comfortably ahead of the previous decade’s total. 

Credit: FIRE

The issue over which most scholars face sanction attempts is race. In total, from 2000 to 2022, 426 sanction attempts, including 64 employment terminations, involved scholars talking about issues such as racial inequality and the Black Lives Matter movement. This also includes quoting from or assigning texts containing racial slurs (for example, works by James Baldwin and Martin Luther King Jr.) (39%). 

The universities where most sanction attempts have occurred are typically the most gilded. Leading the pack was Harvard (23) — which also topped the chart for the highest number of successful sanctions — followed by Stanford (22), UCLA (19), and Georgetown (16). Overall, 90 of the top 100 universities in the US have had at least one sanction attempt since 2000.

“Cancel culture is particularly pernicious when it targets people charged with discovering and disseminating knowledge,” said FIRE Director Komi Frey. “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.” 

is UnHerd’s Newsroom editor.