by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Giovanni Gravano writes for the Martin Center about the impact of today’s woke cancel culture on good college professors.
With “cancel culture” running rampant on social media, in politics, and in the classroom, professors who put forth the effort to help students think critically and challenge their beliefs are needed more than ever. Over the last 15 years at Central Michigan University, journalism professor Timothy Boudreau championed those practices in his classroom, to the benefit of both his students and the culture of free inquiry on campus.
It’s ironic, then, that after years of focusing on free speech by inviting controversial speakers with whom his students could debate and interact as a way of teaching the importance of the First Amendment to future journalists, it was Boudreau’s own quoting of another person’s speech that ended his successful teaching career.
Boudreau was fired after teaching a class on the case of a former basketball coach at his own university who was fired for his use of a racial slur in his locker room pep talks to explain how even the most disagreeable speech may be constitutionally protected. (That 1993 case, Dambrot v. Central Michigan University, is an important First Amendment case and an early defeat for public university speech codes.)
Following class that day on June 22, 2020, a nine-minute video was posted by one of his students, labeling Boudreau “racist” and criticizing his choice to quote the slur in the classroom. As is often the case on social media, a single post criticizing a professor’s speech or course content quickly became an amplified movement to have him punished or fired.
When CMU became aware of the Instagram post two days later, they responded to the student via comment from the university’s account, noting that Boudreau’s “racist conduct” would be taken seriously and investigated to “the fullest extent possible.” CMU’s provost then called Boudreau, asking that he apologize and agree never to use the term again in his classroom.
Boudreau was open to the apology and offered to “weigh very carefully” quoting the slur in future classes. But only two hours after that phone call, Boudreau was notified that he was suspended from the university pending a formal investigation.