The roots of cancel culture first took hold on college campuses, where outspoken pockets of angry students began shouting down teachers and classmates who dared to voice opposing viewpoints. Hundreds of cases of retaliation have since been reported.

But today, the news isn’t all bad. Change is taking place on the very college and university campuses where cancel culture first bloomed. North Carolina’s very own UNC Chapel Hill should be lauded for stepping into the fray in support of free speech.

This institute of higher education has boldly stepped forward to implement changes to address this ugly phenomenon. UNC is working to safeguard the right to free speech for all, not just the right to free speech for those who espouse certain politically slanted points of view.

UNC’s Board of Trustees in January 2023 voted to accelerate the creation of the School of Civic Life and Leadership to provide a space for all political ideologies to be taught and expressed freely, according to a message from Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz.

The purpose of this initiative: “Promoting democracy in our world today,” Guskiewicz said.

The chancellor has characterized the move as essential to preserving free speech in a world where those who do not conform are being “canceled” by angry detractors. These mobs vilify others for their points of view, attack non-conforming individuals’ personal and professional lives, and impugn their credibility.

UNC’s new school was created to encourage those at UNC to continue being “stewards of democracy” for both the campus and the surrounding community.

Here’s some statistics that highlight why this matters so much:

Since 2015, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has logged an astounding 591 instances of retaliation toward college faculty members for expressing their ideas. In 2020, FIRE noted 136 instances of punishing or firing professors for airing their views. In 2021, 111 were targeted.

This frightening form of mob-fueled censorship has become a go-to form of intimidation and a pervasive problem when it comes to speaking out.

Democracy was founded on our right to free speech. But the recent push to silence those with opposing viewpoints — a practice known as cancel culture — is creating an ominous threat to the marketplace of ideas. Censoring the perspectives of those whose beliefs we do not share is a true menace to democracy.

The results of a 2022 survey by FIRE illustrate cancel culture’s threat to free speech. The survey results show that nearly six in 10 Americans feel that our nation’s democracy is threatened because people are afraid to voice their opinions.

Fallout associated with cancel culture has led to various levels of self-censorship and concern, the survey said. Respondents expressed a fear of losing their jobs or their standing in school if they stated certain opinions. Survey-takers noted that they are “fairly often” or “very often” afraid to state certain opinions. Another 8% said they frequently feel pressure to say things they don’t support in order to fit in, the survey stated.

Other worrisome results showed that nearly three quarters of the survey’s respondents said they can experience “significant stress — to the point of engaging in self-harm” — for fear of public backlash about something they said.

“Cancel culture isn’t just about what gets said and then punished,” FIRE vice president of communications Nico Perrino said in an article posted to the FIRE website. “It’s also about what never gets said for fear of punishment. The chilling effect of self-censorship is real — and can have an alarming effect on how Americans communicate.”

A recent survey of UNC students, Free Expression and Constructive Dialogue in the University of North Carolina System (2022), found that “campuses do not consistently achieve an atmosphere that promotes free expression.” Which is why UNC’s desire to promote more opportunities for constructive disagreement and civil discourse is so important.

UNC’s School of Civic Life and Leadership will hopefully be a major step in that direction.

No schools should be providing cover for students to stifle opposing views and discourse. Schools should be doing the opposite. Education is predicated on people challenging each other and sharing different perspectives in a marketplace of ideas where people can expand their thinking, not just harden their positions interactively. Kudos to UNC for taking a stand in the spirit of protecting democracy.