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Forecasting the future of cancel culture

Will America’s next generation respect our right to free speech?

Students on the campus of Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind., last fall Associated Press/Photo by Darron Cummings

Forecasting the future of cancel culture
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If you think cancel culture is bad now, just wait until today’s kids are in charge.

That’s one of many scary if unsurprising conclusions from an important new report on the dangers of cancel culture from the Manhattan Institute, a New York–based think tank.

“The problem of cancel culture is going to get worse, not better,” says Eric Kaufmann, the report’s author and a professor at Birkbeck, the University of London. Kaufmann found that “younger people are substantially more likely to support cultural socialism than older Americans,” regardless of whether they identify as conservatives or liberals, Republicans or Democrats. “As today’s college graduates enter large organizations, they will mount an increasing challenge to freedom of expression,” he concludes.

Kaufmann bases these opinions on a new nationwide poll commissioned for the report that finds, for instance, that half of respondents ages 18 to 35 think that political correctness is a good thing because it protects against discrimination, while only a third of young adults thought it stifles free speech. And those attitudes come out in their reactions to concrete situations: “On average, people 18–25 are 20 points more likely to back a firing or no-platforming campaign” than those over age 50.

You may remember, for instance, when the internet company Mozilla fired its CEO, Brendan Eich, after his donations to the Proposition 8 campaign in California to define marriage as being between one man and one woman became public and led to outrage from the left. Kaufmann finds that “young people who are in the political center have a 50% chance of backing the firing of Eich, compared with centrist voters over 35 who have less than a 20% chance of doing so.”

Kaufmann’s numbers are disconcerting in themselves, but all the more so because they confirm a poll from the CATO Institute that had similar results. That poll found that 44 percent of Americans under age 30 supported firing a business executive if he or she donated to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. That is double the 22 percent support found among those over age 55.

We’re already seeing signs of this changing of the ideological guard in major social institutions. Witness the “identity crisis” within the American Civil Liberties Union between the young and woke and the old-line liberals. Or recall when The New York Times parted with its opinion page editor when he ran an op-ed by a sitting U.S. senator urging a military response to the Black Lives Matter protests during the summer of 2020. The editor was run out of town by tweets from other Times journalists, including, “Running this [op-ed] puts Black @NYTimes staff in danger.” And that is not cancel culture targeting conservatives, that’s young, woke liberals canceling old-line civil-liberties liberals.

Kaufmann found that “younger people are substantially more likely to support cultural socialism than older Americans,” regardless of whether they identify as conservatives or liberals, Republicans or Democrats.

Thankfully, judges are starting to take note of this cancerous culture infecting our body politic and recognizing its threat to our First Amendment values.

U.S. District Judge Brian Martinotti in New Jersey, an appointee of President Barack Obama, wrote in a recent opinion that we live in “a climate marked by the so-called cancel or call-out culture that has resulted in people losing employment, being ejected or driven out of restaurants while eating their meals; and where the Internet removes any geographic barriers to cyber harassment of others.”

In another case in New Mexico, U.S. District Judge Judith Herrera found that the “evidence of threats, harassment, and retaliation against other persons affiliated with nonprofit free enterprise groups and media accounts of public persons encouraging reprisals for speech by those with opposing views is alarming.”

Thankfully, our judges today are much more likely to reflect the traditional bipartisan commitment to America’s free speech tradition, whether from the right or the left. In a recent U.S. Supreme Court case, eight of the nine justices, from across the jurisprudential spectrum, all joined an opinion that strongly defended the right to free speech, especially in educational settings.

In the opinion written by Justice Stephen Breyer, the court said that schools have “an interest in protecting a student’s unpopular expression.” This is so, he wrote, because “America’s public schools are the nurseries of democracy,” adding that in order to teach and facilitate democracy, “schools have a strong interest in ensuring that future generations understand the workings in practice of the well-known aphorism, ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’”

If our schools and universities, traditional bastions of America’s marketplace of ideas, reclaim that role, perhaps our next rising generation will fully appreciate the importance of free speech in our democracy.

Daniel R. Suhr

Daniel R. Suhr serves as managing attorney at the Liberty Justice Center. His clients include victims of cancel culture, parents seeking educational alternatives for their children, and citizens speaking up in the public square. Before joining LJC, he served as a senior adviser to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and a law clerk for Judge Diane Sykes of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. He is a member of Christ Church Mequon, an Eagle Scout, and a fair-weather runner. He’s married to Anna and loves building Legos and watching Star Wars with their young sons, Will and Graham, at their home near Milwaukee.

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