The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) recently hosted “FIRE in Boston,” a reception and panel discussion with Q&A. Members and guests filled the hall at Hyatt Regency Boston Harbor on the evening of September 20. Some fourteen months have passed since the organization originally known as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education announced its intention to expand its scope, rename itself accordingly, and launch a 10 million dollar nationwide advertising campaign in support of free speech.
The foundation’s twenty-four years of work defending faculty and students against speech codes, censorship, retaliation, and cancellation will be known to many readers of Minding the Campus. Along with its legal work, the organization holds an annual faculty conference and provides educational resources for teachers with the goal of nourishing a culture of free expression.
The youngest panel member, FIRE research fellow, writer, and self-described Gen Z activist, Rikki Schlott joined FIRE president and chief executive officer Greg Lukianoff in emphasizing the need for institutions to support free expression. Citing Justice Learned Hand’s 1944 speech, The “Spirit of Liberty,” Lukianoff reminded the audience that laws and regulations are hollow without deeply ingrained citizen buy-in. As Learned Hand wrote: “Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. While it lies there it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it.”
Asked by an English teacher what high schools might do on behalf of free speech, Schlott cited her youthful discovery of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. The book’s principled defense of free expression awakened her to the preciousness of America’s liberties. Schlott remarked that American students have a very poor understanding of even the most basic civics—an assertion backed up by research—and therefore are in no position to understand the value of their liberties. They must be taught, as not all will discover for themselves what she discovered.
Lukianoff and Schlott provided a preview of their co-authored study, The Canceling of the American Mind, whose publisher describes the soon-forthcoming book as, “a timely deep dive into cancel culture, an account of its dangers to all Americans, and the much-needed antidote.” Again, schools and colleges were called upon to educate students into a culture of free speech.
Despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, many still refuse to admit the existence of a cancel culture, let alone acknowledge its harmful effects. Presumably those in attendance needed little convincing that cancel culture is not merely a moral panic, nor a trumped-up culture-war talking point, nor a cynical right-wing chimera, but is rather a cancerous threat to democracy. For those looking to act, the authors promised readers an extensive section of concrete, practical advice on resisting would-be cancelers and reclaiming lost ground in the battle to maintain a robust culture of free speech.
In contrast to his best-selling 2018 book, The Coddling of the American Mind, co-authored with social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, Lukianoff stressed that the newer study does not ascribe good intentions to his adversaries. Teachers, parents, and leaders who promulgated the overly cautious culture of safety detailed in Coddling did children a terrible disservice while having their best interests at heart. Today’s cancelers use social pressure and outright intimidation to win arguments without having to articulate any meaningful arguments.
Hope may lie in the fact that cancel culture is a tyranny of the minority, according to Schlott. On campus, “whatever the loudest student doesn’t want to hear will become forbidden.” Lukianoff agreed, responding to Q&A remarks aimed at the pusillanimous behavior of university administrators who seem to cave without offering the least resistance. Some administrators are not merely caving, Lukianoff averred, but are purposely using students to enact their own cancel-culture agendas.
FIRE’s work in academia obviously remains an emphasis, but its effort to expand its scope beyond professors and students was reflected by the decidedly mixed audience. Lawyers, consultants, writers, librarians, and businesspeople from various walks were in attendance, a clear expansion of FIRE’s traditional base. These may have been especially interested in biologist Carole Hooven’s recounting of how the mob eventually came to her doorstep.
Hooven’s research on human sex differences ran afoul of Harvard students and faculty. One appearance on national media to discuss her findings on the importance of testosterone opened her to cancellation. Her story features the bullying, censoring, and shunning typically used to hound someone out of her job. Most galling to hear was the distortion and outright fabrication of Hooven’s words by her antagonists, whose activist goals and ideological agendas trumped scientific inquiry.
Hooven emphasized the psychological toll of cancellation and lackluster support from colleagues. Harvard made it impossible for her to remain as co-director of Undergraduate Studies in Human Evolutionary Biology, she explained. She has subsequently become affiliated with Harvard’s Psychology Department with the support of Steven Pinker, “who saved [her] career.” Hooven declared that elite universities now “uphold a DEI culture and not a veritas culture.” She is currently a non-resident fellow with the American Enterprise Institute and an active member of the newly established Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard.
The evening ended with a discussion of FIRE’s most recent “College Free Speech Rankings.” Drawing on four extensive databases and responses from 55,000 students, this study seeks to describe college undergraduate students’ perceptions of the free-speech climate at numerous universities. It will not come as a surprise to MTC readers that the health of free speech in the academy remains precarious. Lukianoff repeated what he has said before: that the free speech climate tends to be the worst at elite institutions. The worst of the worst? In the 2024 study just out Harvard came in dead last with a score of zero.
Photo by jonbilous – Adobe Stock – Asset ID#: 74796735