Near-Canceled Legal Scholar Tells Students ‘Refuse To Be Canceled’

When Ilya Shapiro attempted to discuss “all or nothing battles” for Supreme Court nominations 11 months ago at the invitation of a Federalist Society chapter, it wasn’t just a university-mandated mask inhibiting the libertarian legal scholar’s speech.

Student activists at the University of California College of Law, then known as UC Hastings, repeatedly shouted down Shapiro for his quickly removed “lesser black woman” tweet criticizing President Biden’s black women-only SCOTUS nomination promise.

The tweet had already gotten him suspended by Georgetown’s law school near Capitol Hill in D.C. Shapiro would resign shortly after a four-month investigation cleared him on the narrow grounds that he hadn’t started at Georgetown Law’s Center for the Constitution when he tweeted — and implied that he’d be fired next time he offended a student.

Nearly a year later, now leading a comparable research center at the Manhattan Institute, a maskless Shapiro faced a relatively sedate Federalist Society crowd of prelaw students at Georgetown’s main campus across town, ranked the fourth-worst university for “speech climate” last fall.

“We need security for some reason,” he said at the Monday night event on campus free speech, motioning toward a guard near the door as evidence of the censorious campus climate.

“I’m afraid I don’t really bear good news for you,” he said, citing new illiberal trends within medical schools even as American society in general pushes back on wokeness. It’s no wonder that law professors are wary of teaching triggering subjects such as rape law, Shapiro said, echoing decade-old concerns by law professors.

Trustees, he fears, are a long shot to force administrators to follow their free expression pledges. Their positions give them “prestige” and perks such as special a capella performances, and administrators control the information trustees receive, he said.

It will probably take an “exogenous shock” to reverse the illiberal trend, Shapiro said, citing a boycott on clerks from Yale Law started by federal appeals court judge James Ho, partly triggered by repeated disruptions of a Federalist Society event with conservative Supreme Court litigator Kristen Waggoner.

Waggoner is returning to campus for a SCOTUS discussion following fence-mending by Yale Law Dean Heather Gerken, but the administration is banning media coverage and requiring Yale Law ID to attend, according to legal publication JDJournal. Shapiro said Gerken “doesn’t want to go against the woke mob, so puts her head in the sand.”

Social media has “lowered the cost of bullying” by obviating the need for the “guts” it takes to challenge a person face to face and recasting “ganging up” as virtuous, Shapiro said. “The real nefariousness” of cancel culture is it targets normal people, so that “your life becomes a living hell” just by signing a pro-life petition.

But Shapiro urged the students to pick their battles, find “safety in numbers,” periodically disconnect from social media and avoid the “oppression Olympics” favored by leftists. “You don’t have to be a martyr for every single thing that happens,” he said, just “refuse to be canceled.”

Faculty are an overrated source of illiberalism on campus, Shapiro argued. What has changed in the past two decades is not the “ideological ratio” on campus but the “explosion in bureaucracies,” especially diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) offices that oppose free speech and due process.

The challenge for faculty applicants who are not at the farthest fringes of the left is now “squared,” he said: They have to not only find favor with hiring committees dominated by the fringe, but submit diversity statements that avoid verboten language such as found on Stanford’s since-removed Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative.

“The structures that are in place have a self-replicating dynamic,” Shapiro explained, citing the growing “fiefdoms” over speech policing. Department chairs aren’t “woke radicals” but rather “spineless cowards” who indulge the radicals to protect their positions.

Getting a good free expression policy on paper is meaningless if it has no enforcement mechanism or can be overruled by the DEI bureaucracy, Shapiro said, citing his research for a forthcoming book. His onetime dean, Georgetown Law’s William Treanor, cited the tension between free speech and inclusion when Shapiro was cleared on the start-date technicality. “If you find a tension there, you don’t really believe in free speech,” Shapiro observed.

Georgetown business and law professor John Hasnas affirmed from the audience Shapiro’s comments about policies on paper, repeating an argument he made at a fall academic freedom conference. While Hasnas helped convince Georgetown to adopt the so-called Chicago Statement five years ago, it’s not enforced due to faulty systems rather than “bad actors,” he said.