Opinion

Cancel culture comes to Georgetown Law

The chilling implications of a free speech battle on campus

Warnings about the rise of "cancel culture" may sometimes be overblown. But the case of Ilya Shapiro, a libertarian expert in constitutional law placed on "administrative leave" from Georgetown University's law school, is an especially egregious example of the trend — and runs the risk of diminishing every person and institution involved.

In a subsequently deleted tweet posted one day before he was scheduled to take over as a senior lecturer and executive director of the Georgetown Center for the Constitution, Shapiro wrote that the "objectively best pick" to succeed Justice Stephen Breyer on the Supreme Court was Sri Srinivasan, an Indian-born chief judge on the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. But, Shapiro went on to lament, President Biden had already committed to choosing an as-yet unnamed Black woman for the role, ensuring the country would "get a lesser Black woman."

The wording was sloppy, making it sound as if Shapiro considered every potential Black female nominee to be of "lesser" quality. The context makes clear he was comparing all potential nominees to Srinivasan, whom he considered the singularly best person for the job, regardless of ethnic or racial background, but that hasn't mattered.

Nor has it mattered that Shapiro quickly deleted the tweet, clarified his point, and apologized. The brushfire of outrage was already lit. A few days later, Georgetown Law announced Shapiro had been placed on leave pending the outcome of an investigation, making it sound as if he may well end up being fired.

If Shapiro were a journalist, the unfolding of these events would be an almost exact recapitulation of the Kevin Williamson saga at The Atlantic back in 2018. A conservative polemicist, Williamson was hired with much fanfare by the mainstream magazine and then quickly fired after incendiary (but widely known) public statements from earlier in his career came to light and provoked anger and exasperation among staff members. In much the same way, Shapiro ended up in his current predicament by indelicately expressing a long-held view (that hiring decisions should made on the basis of individual merit alone) of which the people who hired him at Georgetown must have been aware when they originally offered him the job.

But of course Shapiro is not a journalist. He was hired to teach and serve as an administrator on a university campus, where support for free speech and expression is expressly cultivated as an essential precondition of learning and research. Without the freedom to explore, test, and criticize ideas in community with other scholars seeking to make progress in knowledge, the process of intellectual exploration and discovery gets thwarted. That means any disciplinary action imposed by Georgetown risks jeopardizing far more than Shapiro's livelihood.  

Shapiro's tweet was indeed "inartful," as he put it to The New York Times. The sentiment it expressed was also foolish. There are many standards of merit, and presidents of both parties routinely weigh numerous considerations, including ethnic and racial background, in picking judiciary appointees. But Shapiro has apologized for the clumsy and offensive phrasing, and error isn't grounds for discipline or dismissal.

The best thing for everyone concerned would be for Georgetown to complete its investigation swiftly and resolve to move on without a cancellation. No other course of action is compatible with the principle of freedom of thought on campus.

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