Cancel culture has become one of the most shopworn epithets in the GOP vocabulary and also one of the most hypocritical.

The only cancellation of free expression to which most Republican politicians object are Republican talking points, particularly Trumpy ones. As for progressive talking points or even conservative critiques of Donald Trump, they would just as soon shout them down or shut them off.

Take, for example, a recent move by Stanford University Law School to delay the graduation of senior law student Nicholas Wallace for publishing a parody. Wallace had sent an email to a campus discussion site mocking the Federalist Society, a conservative legal lobby group that exercised outsized influence with the Trump administration in vetting strict-constructionist (often known as “originalist”) jurists for nomination to the federal bench.

Wallace’s email invited students to an imaginary Federalist Society campus event on Jan. 6, the date of the U.S. Capitol riot, which had occurred 19 days earlier. He dubbed the event “The Originalist Case for Inciting Insurrection” and touted as featured speakers Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., a Stanford graduate, and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, both outspoken deniers of the legitimacy of President Joe Biden’s election win.

“Violent insurrection, also known as doing a coup, is a classical system of installing a government,” the email stated, and it promised that “riot information will be mailed the day of the event.”

Anyone with the sense God gave little green apples, let alone a society of learned lawyers, would have seen this post for what it was — a lampoon of the outlandish claims of election fraud promoted by self-styled originalist constitutionalists like Hawley and Paxton. And parody, no matter how biting, is protected by the First Amendment free speech clause. Nonetheless, the Stanford chapter of the Federalist Society filed a complaint with the school on March 27, alleging that Wallace had violated the school’s code of conduct by falsely accusing Hawley and Paxton of having promoted the Capitol riot.

Two months later, on May 27, his last day of classes and just weeks before he was due to graduate, Wallace was informed his graduation was being placed on hold while the school investigated the Federalist Society complaint.

After the investigation was closed on June 2, by which time this distinguished law school had become a national laughing stock, it decided — surprise, surprise — that Wallace’s email was “protected speech” and that he should be allowed to graduate.

Consider, too, Brian Kemp, Georgia’s conservative Republican governor who had the temerity to accept the validity of his state’s 2020 election result favoring Biden over Trump. A large contingent of Trump supporters at the state’s June 5 GOP convention tried to silence Kemp with boos and jeers as he was delivering a speech. Kemp barely escaped censure by the same convention-goers, though his Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger, was not so lucky. Raffensperger was censured for refusing to overturn the election result.

I could cite many more examples, but these will suffice to illustrate that cancel culture isn’t limited to the unfortunate practice of many colleges and universities, often under pressure from their students, of denying a forum for speakers whose views have failed to pass a liberal litmus test.

When I was a senior at Georgetown University in June 1969, before the term cancel culture was even invented, I witnessed an example of this phenomenon which left a sour taste in my mouth and persuaded me that speech, however, unpopular, should nearly always be permitted.

About a half dozen students from the radical left Students for a Democratic Society stormed the podium in a university lecture hall where Joseph Alioto, San Francisco’s mayor, was starting to deliver a speech. The commotion forced security personnel to hustle Alioto off stage, and the scheduled event, for which there was a packed house, was canceled.

Alioto, a successful antitrust lawyer turned politician, had taken a hard stand on student campus protests then roiling the country as a result of the Vietnam War, black power and other anti-establishment movements. These were not the relatively restrained protests of the Civil Rights movement, typified by peaceful marches and speeches. Students were literally paralyzing their campuses, taking over administrative buildings and preventing teachers from holding classes until their “demands” had been met.

Though a Democrat with a fairly progressive political agenda, Alioto had no patience for such disruptive behavior and sent in police to quell a student “strike” at San Francisco State University which threatened to shut down the campus. I was personally struggling to understand the societal upheaval that was tearing the country apart in the late 1960s, and I really wanted to hear Alioto’s speech, appropriately titled “Freedom of Speech on the Campus.” But it was not to be.

I recognized one of the disruptors as an underclassman with whom I had worked on the college radio station. On my way out of the hall, I pulled him aside and angrily asked, “Why did you do this?”

He shrugged and replied, “It had to be done,” as if his own ideas about truth and social justice were so obviously correct that no further explanation was required.

The events of the past four years — in which massive disinformation campaigns, QAnon conspiracy theories, and Donald Trump’s “big lie” seemed to turn many otherwise rational, respectable Americans, including those storming the Capitol on Jan. 6, into drooling, menacing zombies — have caused me to question my own views as to the inviolability of free speech.

Perhaps the government does need to give a more expansive definition to incitement to violence and insurrection, speech which is not protected by the First Amendment.

Short of that, however, I still believe that giving full rein to free speech is healthier for a democratic society than cancellation.

Elliott Epstein is a trial lawyer with Andrucki & King in Lewiston. His Rearview Mirror column, which has appeared in the Sun Journal for 10 years, analyzes current events in an historical context. He is also the author of “Lucifer’s Child,” a book about the notorious 1984 child murder of Angela Palmer. He may be contacted at [email protected]

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