Who can cancel whom? What is worth canceling? Can a university strenuously honor free inquiry and ensure an inclusive environment for all? This dilemma is among the most difficult currently facing higher education professionals. Cancel Wars: How Universities Can Foster Free Speech, Promote Inclusion, and Renew Democracy by University of Pennsylvania Professor Sigal Ben-Porath enters this fray. Dr. Ben-Porath recognizes that the college campus is an important place for discovering the boundaries and norms for discussing the issues about which we’re most likely to disagree. Her thesis is that practicing habits of civil dialogue will improve viewpoint tolerance and campus culture in higher education. Now that professor firings receive national attention, Cancel War’s inquiry is timely.
Dr. Ben-Porath says that the predicate for healthy discourse is a “shared epistemic foundation,” or a set of incontrovertible facts that can be used by both sides to develop their arguments. Weaving in political science research on in-group affirmation of facts, she finds that “the significant practical overlap between the civic and truth-seeking goals of the university are reflective of the increasingly blurred line between expertise and popular views.” In a 2019 study, the Pew Research Center found that only 33% of Republicans (and Republican leaners) believe that colleges and universities are having a positive effect on the way things are going in America (among Democrat leaners, it is 67%). To that point, Dr. Ben-Porath devotes a chapter to the subject of inclusion and harm. As she defines it, “Inclusion, broadly understood, means that members of a community see themselves as having equal worth and equal standing and that all members are welcomed into the community as equals.” Sounds simple enough. But the author doubts the value of free expression and believes it should subordinate when someone claims to have been harmed by others’ speech. She disagrees, for example, with the 2021 case Meriwether v. Hartop, where the federal Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled in favor of a professor who was punished by his state university employer for refusing to use a student’s preferred pronouns in classroom discussions. She thinks that “civility overlooks power differentials for speech,” which can result in “epistemic injustice.” The political overlay of the Meriwether dispute is real, but the chapter does not address it directly.
There are strengths and weaknesses to Dr. Ben-Porath’s arguments. Liberal democracy flourishes when norms of civility are respected. Yet there is evidence that faculty in many disciplines need to tread more cautiously than they used to. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression’s Scholars Under Fire Database shows that “the number of targeting incidents against professors has risen precipitously since 2015.” To give one example, the University of Florida embarrassed itself in late 2021 when it initially forbade three political science professors from testifying about recent legislation that would have changed state voting requirements (its president later reversed course and allowed them to testify). What is more likely, that professors have been behaving more offensively of late, or that the student body is primed to take greater offense to usual course content?
The author’s chapter on inclusion and harm also discusses the importance of tolerating those with differing political views to overcome political polarization. Citing a story of a man who was raised in a white nationalist environment but now works to combat racism, she writes, “Some studies show that a personal and nonjudgmental exchange of narratives on a political contentious topic  can foster more tolerant attitudes.” The Hidden Tribes project, whose team of social scientists conducts research about the forces driving political polarization, issued its Perception Gap study in 2019. The study found that partisans of one side are likely to think of most partisans of the other side as “holding extreme views,” even though most do not. Classroom discussions can help reduce distrust and help students gain a greater understanding of why others think differently than they do. Better in-class dialogue can calm students’ threat sensitivity about “harmful” ideas and improve the learning process for all.
The final chapter proposes helpful ideas for how universities can promote democracy and foster free speech. Dr. Ben-Porath approvingly quotes free expression expert Nadine Strossen on hate speech laws: “Even if constitutionally protected ‘hate speech’ did notably contribute to the feared harms, and even if ‘hate speech’ laws would meaningfully help to reduce them, we still should reject such laws because non-censorial measures can effectively counter the feared harm.” The author believes that “campuses can serve as both anchors and models for revitalizing democracy by creating spaces where common ground can be found.” She recommends that campus leaders resist the urge to act rashly in response to controversies and to instead make statements that express campus values. Faculty ought to plan discussions for sensitive topics and use a “five-minute rule” that requires discussion participants “to consider the perspective on its merits, looking to understand and make the case for it before offering any criticism.” Students should be curious and not judgmental; they should seize opportunities to learn from others who don’t think like they do.
These are helpful recommendations, yet Dr. Ben-Porath does not clarify how a university should act when a speaker expresses views that some in the campus community think are opposed to institutional values. This dilemma can be solved by adhering to the precepts of the 1967 Kalven Report, authored by a University of Chicago committee tasked with preparing “a statement on the University’s role in political and social action.” Sociologist and committee chair Harry Kalven, Jr., wrote, “The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic.” Institutional neutrality “arises . . . not from a lack of courage nor out of indifference and insensitivity. It arises out of respect for free inquiry and the obligation to cherish a diversity of viewpoints.” University administrators are not responsible for endorsing or condemning viewpoints held by speakers invited to campus by various student groups. That means they do not need to make statements that “some members of the community pay a price for this protection” of core First Amendment values and liberal discourse. I do not know how the author would answer the following question: Is it better to err on the side of allowing too much speech or on the side of making sure no one in a room feels offended or harmed?
Cancel Wars explains some of the tensions surrounding free expression on the modern college campus and offers some proposals for reform. However, the author does not offer explicit recommendations for precisely how administrators should act when protected First Amendment speech is subjectively perceived as offensive by others. Unpleasant dilemmas like these will require a resolution: if not in scholarly writing, then in federal courts.