HILL: Duke University, free speech and cancel culture

This Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015 photo shows Duke Chapel in Durham. (AP Photo/Jonathan Drew)

How many hundreds, thousands or hundreds of thousands of American citizens have been “canceled,” fired or not re-hired in the wake of Black Lives Matter (BLM) and far-left attacks on free speech? 

If it is only one, it is one too many. Compelled speech as well as censored speech defeats the whole purpose of free and open inquiry on college campuses. 

I used to teach a graduate masters level program at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, one of the very few conservative Republicans allowed to do so in recent memory. They were all very bright and motivated students, all of whom anyone would hope to see run for public office since they exhibit the virtues and attributes all Americans want to see in their elected leaders. 

Perhaps I was one of several part-time “practitioners of the practice,” as they call some non-Ph.D. lecturers, not asked to return to teach again for budgetary or course content reasons. Maybe the class just wasn’t very good any longer. Those are all valid reasons not to ask anyone to return to teaching any class anywhere to be honest. 

However, it may have had something to do with something I said about BLM in a public forum on Sept. 14, 2020. If it did, then there are some issues of free speech and the free expression of religion on campus which need to be seriously addressed. 

For the first 83 minutes of the 90-minute forum, everything seemed to go well. Over 450 Duke students and friends were online for a discussion between me and a liberal Christian professor about how Christians should evaluate candidates running for office. 

At minute 84, a question was asked about how a Christian should view the Black Lives Matter movement. I knew it was coming so I had prepared for it by consulting with a few black Christians who had come through The Institute for the Public Trust. 

My Christian liberal Democrat Duke faculty colleague simply said: “Black Lives Matter.” Period. End of story. 

Perhaps I should have parroted the same answer as well.  But I think there are much deeper issues in terms of faith and free speech which needed to be addressed in such an open forum with young students. My answer went something like this, more or less: 

“Since Christians believe God knows who everyone is before they were formed in the mother’s womb, every life is important regardless of race. Every life is important which means every black, white, Asian or Hispanic life ‘matters’ to God ― which is particularly relevant when one considers close to 50% of all abortions are performed on black women.” 

Those are all legitimate statements based on interpretation of information, data and worldview. No one has to agree ― or disagree ― with anyone’s opinions in a free and open society. That is the very definition of “free speech.” 

A female African-American grad student complained to university officials that my answers about BLM were “painful.” She took offense with me saying close to 50% of all abortions were performed on black mothers. 

I am always willing to be proven wrong ― as long as it is done with facts, figures and reliable data. The actual figure is 42%.  We could have spent another ten forums talking about faith and abortion ― if anyone could have stayed online for that long. 

A nine-page report was compiled by several Duke faculty members almost immediately which examined my public service record, editorials and statements to see if I was a racist ― I guess. The report was sent to Duke President Vincent Price “to see if further action was necessary.”  

One week passed, and then another without being called to President Price’s office to discuss the matter. Soon thereafter, I thought the matter had passed. 

On Oct. 5, 2021, over a year later, I received written notice from Fidelity Investments informing me that my “former employer” had instructed them to send information about how to rollover a small amount of money Duke University had placed in a 401k program into a private account of my own. 

Was I “canceled” by Duke University? The notice from Fidelity said my “former” employer directed them to send the letter. It is the only communication I have had with Duke since 2020. I haven’t been asked to teach a fourth class at Sanford so maybe my participation in the 2020 forum had something to do with it ― or maybe it didn’t. 

The point of the matter is that no one on any college campus, student or faculty member, should be censored from saying what they believe or compelled to say anything they don’t want to say.  Full and free open debate is how anyone learns anything from each other or any professor ― if everyone knew as much as everyone else did, and agreed with them on everything, college would be a very boring, and very expensive, place to go for four years. 

In the aftermath of the BLM movement, now would be a good time to reassert the primacy of free speech and open debate without consequences. It is the best way to repair our nation.