What to make of ‘cancel culture’ and the price of free speech? | Opinion

Protesters call for Governor Ralph Northam to come out and answer their questions outside Capitol Square in Richmond, Va., June 2, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boyce / For the Virginia Mercury)

By Bob Lewis

One thing the 21st century has taught us is that Americans are losing the essential ability to disagree agreeably and that free speech can be expensive.

Speak your mind and you might just pay with your job, your business, your sponsorship deals, your college admission, your friendships — you name it.

Robust expression is as old as the First Amendment. Weary of being jailed for speaking against the crown in Colonial times, the founders wanted an unfettered exchange of ideas among the people to keep the gears of a working, participatory, representative democracy well-oiled.

And, for just as long, free speech has pleased some and angered others. It has brought impassioned throngs to their feet roaring with approval. It has also gotten the speaker sued, shunned, punched in the nose and challenged to duels.

Now, to a degree never previously possible, technology, growing levels of intolerance and an inclination of like-minded people to organize and execute campaigns via the internet have created within society — particularly American society — the capacity to exact ruinous, long-lasting costs for out-of-favor speech.

Call it “cancel culture” if you like. Republicans do, particularly over the past few years when their words or deeds have run afoul of prevailing attitudes.

Look no farther than Major League Baseball’s decision to yank the July All-Star Game from Atlanta’s home of the Braves and move it to the Colorado Rockies’ home stadium in Denver. That was triggered by Georgia’s GOP-controlled legislature and governor enacting new voting constraints after the traditionally red state elected Democrats in two elections just two months apart.

The pretext for the new laws was preventing election fraud that Georgia’s Republican top election official, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, said did not occur in last fall’s election. Gov. Brian Kemp, also a Republican, backed Raffensperger’s finding and certified the election results, even as then-President Donald Trump cajoled, pressured and threatened Raffensperger to “find” just enough votes to reverse Joe Biden’s victory in Georgia.

MLB is just the most visible national organization responding to the new Georgia laws. Georgia-based Coca-Cola, Home Depot and Delta Airlines are perhaps the most notable corporate titans condemning the Georgia law in response to mainstream news coverage and an effective campaign by Georgia Democratic activist Stacy Abrams.

Republicans have railed against the left’s “woke cancel culture.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, went so far as to tell corporations to stay out of politics and warned of “serious consequences if they become a vehicle for far-left mobs to hijack our country from outside the constitutional order.” Perhaps he momentarily forgot about the $4.3 million that corporations pumped into his political action committee for the 2020 election cycle. By tying cancel culture to the left, the GOP enlists its base in the battle and presumably hopes to win over moderates uneasy with more strident policing of the public square.

Some Virginia Republicans clearly sense an opportunity. Gubernatorial hopeful Kirk Dox, the former state House of Delegates speaker from Colonial Heights, is inveighing against it nonstop.

“If you’re fed up with the left trying to cancel everything and everyone they disagree with, join me today. And together we will cancel cancel culture,” Cox said in an ad released last week.

Let’s not pretend, however, that the GOP doesn’t practice cancellation tactics itself. Ask Republican U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney about the effort Trump and his toady, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., are undertaking in Wyoming to defeat her next year all because of her vote to impeach Trump.

But the GOP has a point about collateral damage done by actions such as MLB’s. While the move targeted the state’s dominant GOP policymakers, low-wage workers such as hotel housekeepers, restaurant workers, taxi and ride-sharing drivers, concessionaires and souvenir vendors will feel economic pain from losing baseball’s midsummer classic. And the Republican State Leadership Committee was quick to point it out in a digital ad now being aired in Virginia and New Jersey, the only states that hold elections for statewide office this fall.

I have mixed feelings about cancel culture, which essentially means some Americans acting collectively to assert their beliefs and attempting to exact a cost for speech or deeds they find offensive.

Wasn’t it a form of cancel culture that ended segregated seating on the public buses of Montgomery, Alabama, after one tiny woman – Rosa Parks – refused to yield her seat to a White man? Wasn’t it public activism that changed hearts and minds and, a century ago, at long last gave women the right to vote? Wasn’t it public outrage over children being mangled and killed in factory accidents that led to child labor laws? Wasn’t it an American public increasingly unhappy with the loss of life for no discernible strategic gain that canceled the Vietnam War? For that matter, wasn’t it the action of American colonists who took up arms and canceled an abusive English monarch that led to the founding of our nation?

If that same force brings about a more equitable justice system for Black Americans as a result of the death of George Floyd and other Black Americans, then that’s an outcome I applaud.

Some people abundantly earned their cancellations. I’m looking at you, Harvey Weinstein; and you, Bill Cosby; and you, Derek Chauvin. Unconscionable actions by all three rendered each untouchable by prevailing public sentiment long before the justice system locked them away.

But cancellation campaigns can go too far, wrecking individual lives and subverting free and uninhibited speech.

What safeguards are in place to distinguish between clearly abusive and predatory words and actions such as an incitement to violence on one hand, and the legitimate airing of unpopular viewpoints or the questioning of authority — discourse that should be fostered in a healthy, free society, not cudgeled into silence. Who and where are the referees?

Did Twitter go too far when it permanently banned Trump from its platform after his Jan. 6 tweets in support of rioters who were invading the U.S. Capitol? Bitter disagreement — tracking largely on partisan lines — remains over that one. It’s arguable that Trump’s tweets constituted an incitement to violence and insurrection. Trump and his supporters argue that he was just expressing his deeply held — if unsupportable — belief that he was the rightful winner of a second term.

And Republicans suggest that Rep. Maxine Waters also came close to inciting crowd violence. Waters, D-Calif., addressed protesters in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, after several nights of violent unrest over the fatal police shooting of Daunte Wright, a Black man. If former Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin was acquitted of George Floyd’s murder in a trial a few miles away, Waters urged the demonstrators “to get more confrontational.” Chauvin was convicted on all counts and peace prevailed, but the dismayed judge in Chauvin’s trial told defense lawyers, “Congresswoman Waters may have given you something on appeal that may result in this whole trial being overturned.”

Efforts to mute disfavored speech aren’t always exacted in response to public outrage.

The University of Virginia has been sued by a former medical student who alleges that UVA expelled him in retaliation for challenging questions he asked of professors during an academic presentation.

Kieran Bhattacharya filed suit against the university in September 2019 after a succession of encounters with UVA officials arising from a November 2018 panel discussion he attended about microaggressions. When the panel started taking audience questions, Bhattacharya asked several, prodding the professors for more detail to support their conclusions. In the subsequent weeks, he was suspended and presented with a police order banishing him from UVA’s grounds.

His four-count U.S. District Court complaint contends that the university retaliated against him for exercising his First Amendment rights, violated his 14th Amendment right to due process, conspired to breach his civil rights and sought to wrongfully “injure him in his trade, business and profession” contrary to state law.”

Last month, U.S. District Judge Norman K. Moon in Charlottesville dismissed three of the counts, but denied the university’s motion to dismiss the First Amendment claim. In doing so, the judge rejected UVA’s assertion that Bhattacharya was expelled for violating the school’s professional code, not over his speech.

“Bhattacharya’s speech at the panel discussion — questioning and critiquing the theory of microaggression — does not clearly fall into any category of speech that UVA Medical School can regulate or prohibit,” Judge Norman Moon wrote. Nor did Moon embrace UVA’s assertion that the plaintiff’s comments were “insulting, disrespectful, and uncivil” to the faculty.

“Indeed,” Moon continued, “the comments did not involve ad-hominem attacks or curse words. At worst, they were aggressive critiques.”

How this case gets resolved is anyone’s guess. Bhattacharya’s claim is nothing more than that — a claim. Evidence has yet to be presented and weighed in court.

But, if the plaintiff’s allegation holds up, intolerance of expression and legitimate inquiry — and, indeed, retaliation against it — would be a bad look for an elite public university which should be a sanctuary for and defender of the vigorous exercise of free thought and speech.

Bob Lewis is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury, a sibling site of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this column first appeared

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Capital-Star Guest Contributor
Capital-Star Guest Contributor

The Pennsylvania Capital-Star welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation on how politics and public policy affects the day-to-day lives of people across the commonwealth.