Conservative Free Speech and the Lie of Campus Cancel Culture

As colleges across the country finally reckon with race and social justice, conservatives are feeling left out. They decry “campus cancel culture,” a culture that, they claim, dismisses their ideas and treats them with open and virulent hostility. To combat this culture, conservatives adopt the posture of free thinkers, but when they receive the slightest criticism, they call foul.

The University of Chicago, historically a bastion of libertarian thought, provides the latest example of this conservative fragility. Last semester, a group of self-identified conservative students launched a second campus newspaper, the Chicago Thinker, because, they stated, “we demand not to be coddled.” The paper’s purpose is to amplify conservative and libertarian voices amongst students on campus, and to stand “athwart the leftist orthodoxy.”

The inciting incident for this paper’s creation was when Evita Duffy, now managing editor of the Chicago Thinker, stated in a UChicago Instagram promotion that she “voted because the Coronavirus won’t destroy America, but socialism will.” (She said this in Spring 2020 when coronavirus had only killed 3000 people, and Bernie Sanders, America’s best hope for socialism, was losing the Democratic primary.) The statement provoked backlash amongst the student body, most of which was criticism, though some issued death threats. 

Duffy and her compatriots deemed this backlash canceling. On the Chicago Thinker’s website, they call it “speech suppression.” Duffy’s solution to this problem was not to contribute more loudly or more strongly to mainstream forums such as the Chicago Maroon (UChicago’s main student newspaper), but rather to create a space where conservatives can agree with each other free from critique. The Chicago Thinker explicitly states that it has “a clear agenda: to defend conservative and libertarian perspectives in a community that is increasingly intolerant of such voices.” This new paper is an echo-chamber, meant to let conservative perspectives go unchallenged. 

This stands counter to the goals of free speech and freedom from ‘coddling’ that the students claimed they wanted. Free speech is meant to promote open discourse, and open discourse means getting criticised. But Duffy didn’t like getting criticised. It happened to her, and it was uncomfortable. So she retreated from the public square and decided to publish her ideas to a less challenging audience.

This situation reveals the lies around conservative’s use of free speech. Conservatives are quick to complain about “cancel culture,” as the College Fix article reporting on this situation does, whenever they receive pushback. But receiving pushback on ideas is a vital part of free speech. Freedom of speech does not mean blind acquiescence to whatever ideas are introduced into the public square. Real free speech means careful deliberation and harsh criticism. 

Duffy demonstrated she doesn’t want this. Instead, she wants to use the excuse of overly harsh criticism to create a space where she and other conservatives can howl their ideas, uninterrupted, into open air.

But the narrative created around these stories — the embattled free-speech warrior versus the sheepish liberal hordes — isn’t really made for a college population. Stories about “coddling” on college campuses, and the incessant complaining that paints all criticism as “canceling” are products for a non-college population. It might be best described as “grief grifting.” These narratives are falsely constructed by aggrieved conservatives who have been regularly criticised by their peers, and they are then packaged by news sites such as the College Fix (“Your Daily Dose of Right-Minded News”), and funded by the likes of the Koch brothers. These are grifters utilizing their grief to falsely sell stories of cancel culture. And these stories are actively created and sought out to discredit the kind of left-leaning thinking which tends to happen at colleges and universities.

While our current university system has flaws, it does have a tendency to seek the truth. Unfortunately for people like the Koch brothers, that truth is often at odds with their profits. It is then to their advantage to discredit the students at such institutions as coddled, and the thinking that happens at those institutions as indoctrination, citing a lack of open discourse, while explicitly engaging in the kind of self-affirmative congratulations that is antithetical to free speech. 

Duffy might genuinely care about free speech, but the people who wrote the headlines at College Fix don’t. It is obvious to most outside observers that Duffy is fleeing from the process of free speech, not defending it. But Duffy is a politically convenient student, positioned in a politically convenient story. So she becomes the warrior, defending discourse.

And meanwhile, in free speech bastions like College Fix, the comments are disabled. The reason? “Cancel culture,” of course.