Jun 8, 2022

Ilya Shapiro's free speech fight.

Ilya Shapiro's free speech fight.

His story is becoming a flashpoint in the free speech debate.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 14 minutes.

Ilya Shapiro's "campus speech" battle. Plus a question about how Tangle diversifies its voices.

Ilya Shapiro speaking at CPAC in 2016. Photo: Gage Skidmore
Ilya Shapiro speaking at CPAC in 2016. Photo: Gage Skidmore 

Quick hits.

  1. San Francisco voters recalled District Attorney Chesa Boudin, a progressive who was considered "soft on crime." Meanwhile, Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA) will face billionaire and former Republican Rick Caruso in a race for Mayor of Los Angeles. (The story)
  2. The World Bank lowered its 2022 global economic growth forecast and projected inflation to remain high. (The change)
  3. Moderna has released data showing a modified version of its Covid-19 vaccine booster better protects against the Omicron variant than its other shots. (The booster)
  4. Actor and Uvalde, Texas native Matthew McConaughey pleaded for gun reform in a speech at the White House yesterday. Separately, an 11-year-old survivor of the Robb Elementary School shooting will testify before Congress today. (The testimony)
  5. John Allen, a retired four-star general and the head of the Brookings Institution, is being investigated for undisclosed lobbying for Qatar. (The investigation)

Our 'Quick Hits' section is created in partnership with Ground News, a website and app that rates the bias of news coverage and news outlets.

Today's topic.

Ilya Shapiro. In January, Shapiro — a prominent lawyer who had just been hired as a law professor at Georgetown — became the center of controversy over his tweet about President Biden's Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson.

“Objectively best pick for Biden is Sri Srinivasan, who is solid prog & v smart,” he tweeted. “Even has identity politics benefit of being first Asian (Indian) American. But alas doesn’t fit into the latest intersectionality hierarchy so we’ll get lesser black woman. Thank heaven for small favors?”

After immediately coming under fire, Shapiro apologized, deleted the tweet, and described it as "poorly worded" and "inartful." Shapiro was accused of racism, and many — including students and professors at Georgetown — called his status at Georgetown into question. Georgetown suspended Shapiro and launched a four-month investigation, ultimately clearing him for reinstatement last week on a technicality that he was not yet working for the university when the tweet was posted. Shapiro proclaimed victory in what many have described as a campus free speech issue. But he reversed course on Monday, announcing he had decided to resign from the job.

“I would have to be constantly walking on eggshells,” he said in an interview after publishing an op-ed about his case in The Wall Street Journal.

Shapiro's story has become a flashpoint in the debate about whether college campuses are becoming too ideologically rigid and censorious. In particular, the story gained traction because of Georgetown's speech and expression policy, which calls for “free and open inquiry, deliberation and debate and all matters, and the untrammeled verbal and nonverbal expression of ideas."

Shapiro, who calls himself a "classical liberal" but has often been described as a Libertarian or conservative, criticized Georgetown's Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity and Affirmative Action, which was responsible for investigating him. “It is one of the most pernicious parts of recent developments in academia where it’s kind of an Orwellian situation, where in the name of diversity, equity and inclusion, bureaucrats enforce an orthodoxy that stifles intellectual diversity,” he said.

William M. Treanor, the dean of Georgetown's Law School, defended the investigation.

“His tweets could be reasonably understood, and were in fact understood by many, to disparage any Black woman the president might nominate,” Treanor said. “As I wrote at the time, Mr. Shapiro’s tweets are antithetical to the work that we do at Georgetown Law to build inclusion, belonging and respect for diversity. They have been harmful to many in the Georgetown Law community and beyond.”

Below, we're going to take a look at some arguments from the right and left about Shapiro's case, then my take.

Note: We typically rotate who goes first each day, but today we are starting with the "What the right is saying" for the second day in a row so we can begin with Shapiro's own writing.

What the right is saying.

  • Shapiro argues that Georgetown created an untenable and hostile work environment for him.
  • The right argues that he took a moral high ground and didn't reward Georgetown for its actions.
  • Many say the school caved to "mob mentality" by suspending Shapiro in the first place.

In The Wall Street Journal, Shapiro himself said he quit because the university "yielded to the progressive mob, abandoned free speech, and created a hostile environment."

"IDEAA (Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity and Affirmative Action) speciously found that my tweet criticizing President Biden for limiting his Supreme Court pool by race and sex required 'appropriate corrective measures' to address my 'objectively offensive comments and to prevent the recurrence of offensive conduct based on race, gender, and sex.' ... But IDEAA makes clear there is nothing objective about its standard," Shapiro wrote. “'The University’s anti-harassment policy does not require that a respondent intend to denigrate,' the report says. 'Instead, the Policy requires consideration of the purpose or effect of a respondent’s conduct.' That people were offended, or claim to have been, is enough for me to have broken the rules.

"IDEAA asserts that if I 'were to make another, similar or more serious remark as a Georgetown employee, a hostile environment based on race, gender, and sex likely would be created.' All sorts of comments that someone could find offensive would subject me to disciplinary action," he wrote. "Consider the following hypotheticals: I laud Supreme Court decisions that overrule Roe v. Wade and protect the right to carry arms. An activist claims that my comments 'deny women’s humanity' and make her feel 'unsafe' and 'directly threatened with physical violence.' ... I could go on, but you get the idea. It is the Georgetown administrators who have created a hostile work environment for me... The freedom to speak is no freedom at all if it makes an exception for speech someone finds offensive or counter to some nebulous conception of equity."

The Washington Examiner said Ilya Shapiro "outclassed" Georgetown.

"The suspension itself breached decency and common sense, as it punished Shapiro for a single, substantively inoffensive but poorly worded tweet that Shapiro had quickly removed and for which he quickly apologized," the board wrote. "Treanor’s mealymouthed 'reinstatement,' fully parsed, was just as objectionable as the original (mis)punishment. There’s no need to rehash the tweet itself, which reasonably if unartfully objected to President Joe Biden’s use of identity politics to select a Supreme Court justice. At issue here are academic liberty and freedom of speech. Treanor and Georgetown made a mockery of both, thus betraying themselves as petty commissars of a national leftist thought police.

"The suspension always was a sham. It sought to penalize Shapiro for something he tweeted before he even took the Georgetown job on the grounds that he may have 'violated our policies and expectations on professional conduct, non-discrimination, and anti-harassment.' Even if Shapiro had been subject to those 'policies and expectations' before joining Georgetown’s faculty, his handling (including quick removal) of his single, brief tweet actually showed high professionalism while manifestly discriminating against and harassing absolutely nobody," the board wrote. "What followed was a laundry list of hoops through which Shapiro would be expected to jump, including the woke indoctrination of yet more 'programming on implicit bias, cultural competence, and non-discrimination.' In not one sentence did Treanor credit Shapiro’s original motives, his explanation for the tweet, or his prerogative to push back against identity politics in any way."

In The Washington Free Beacon, Aaron Sibarium said the university used Shapiro's apology against him.

"The report, submitted to the dean’s office on June 2, framed that apology as evidence of guilt," Sibarium wrote. "Shapiro’s 'plain words not only explicitly identified the race, sex, and gender of a group of individuals,' the report said, 'but also categorized Black women as lesser. Though [Shapiro] did not himself describe his comments as offensive or acknowledge that his comments could reasonably be interpreted to denigrate individuals, he promptly removed the tweet and apologized after others expressed their criticism.' ... The report shows how contrition can empower the mob rather than placate it, legitimizing online outrage and creating cover for diversity bureaucrats.

"The 10-page report suggests that the university faced tremendous pressure to ostracize Shapiro—not just from students but from his fellow professors," Sibarium added. "A 'lot of faculty' expressed 'deep concern' and 'outrage' about his tweet, according to the report, as did several administrators, who said they would 'not participate in any program or activity' involving him. It would be 'disruptive,' they told the diversity office, if Shapiro were 'physically present' on campus... The report even implied that allegations of 'a hostile environment' are themselves proof of it."

What the left is saying.

  • The left is divided on the issue, though many called for Shapiro's firing or supported his suspension.
  • Some say Georgetown is violating its own free speech policies and ideals.
  • Others say the school should not elevate free speech over the rights of students and its other values.

In The Washington Post, Georgetown professor Alicia Plerhoples said "free speech can't trump every other value on campus."

“On campuses and in other public squares across the country, free-speech rallying cries typically come at extraordinary costs to marginalized groups,” Plerhoples said. “Elevating freedom of speech while discounting every other value often means accepting the denigration of women, people of color and Indigenous people. After Shapiro posted his tweet, many faculty members, including me, called for the rescission of his employment contract. Shapiro had not yet begun working at the law school, and we felt he had already defied Georgetown’s ‘commitment to more fully embrace diversity, equity and inclusion.’... Others came to Shapiro’s defense, citing Georgetown’s policy on speech and expression, which upholds the ‘untrammeled verbal and nonverbal expression of ideas.’

“These supporters were the expected conservatives and libertarians, but liberals, too; the lionization of free speech cuts across ideology," she wrote. "Shapiro would have headed a major program at Georgetown Law that conducts lectures and conferences on constitutional law, sponsors student fellows and serves as a clearinghouse for judicial clerkships. These are critical opportunities for law students. Retaining Shapiro in the role would have closed off the center’s offerings to our Black female students — and probably to many other women and students of color — who saw and understood his tweet to mean that Black people and women are of “lesser” intelligence and import. These students would have not only suffered mental anguish as they internalized yet another authority figure belittling their capacities based solely on race and gender but also possible adverse career consequences should they have avoided Shapiro’s center, as might have any rational person who wished to avoid amplifying the discrimination they already face.”

In New York Magazine, Jonathan Chait said Georgetown abandoned its free speech policy.

"I don’t agree with the idea conservative lawyer Ilya Shapiro expressed in January, when he objected to President Biden’s promise to appoint a Black woman to the first Supreme Court opening. (I wrote a column attacking his position.) But rather than simply refute his easily refutable arguments, Shapiro’s critics demanded he be fired by Georgetown, which had just hired him to teach at its law center,” Chait wrote. “Georgetown agreed on principle with the demand that he could be fired for his opinions but kept him on staff on a technicality. Shapiro is quitting his position on the grounds that Georgetown refuses to grant his opinions the same protection afforded to people with progressive points of view, and I have to admit he appears to be correct about that.

"Georgetown has previously (and correctly) allowed left-leaning scholars to express ideas that could certainly be construed as offensive or threatening," Chait wrote. "Shapiro cites professor Carol Christine Fair of the School of Foreign Service tweeting during Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation process: 'Look at this chorus of entitled white men justifying a serial rapist’s arrogated entitlement. All of them deserve miserable deaths while feminists laugh as they take their last gasps. Bonus: we castrate their corpses and feed them to swine? Yes.' In practice, Georgetown is revealing a double standard in which conservatives must avoid giving offense while progressives are free to express any unguarded thought... Conservatives don’t generally care about free speech. They use the cause cynically to defend their allies. But we shouldn’t take the fact that conservatives don’t care about free speech to mean liberals shouldn’t either. Just the opposite, in fact."

In February, Paul Butler, a tenured law professor at Georgetown, said the university should have fired Shapiro for his tweet.

"Let me make this easy for the dean," Butler wrote. "No, he should not be employed at our school, which educates more Black women than virtually any top law school in the country. The problem is not that Shapiro is opposed to Biden’s selection criteria. Shapiro is unfit for our community not only because he called Black women 'lesser' but also because his tweet evidences a pattern of bias that isn’t just a poor choice of words. An interesting mix of conservatives and mainly White progressives has risen in Shapiro’s defense. Those on the right deny that Shapiro’s tweet was racist. Some liberals concede that point, but claim academic freedom includes the right to describe Black women pejoratively.

"The fact that Shapiro’s tweet isn’t, to some, as obviously biased demonstrates the hurdles facing women of color. They are presumed incompetent, even when Biden’s two leading candidates graduated from top law schools, clerked for Supreme Court justices and have unimpeachable records as appellate judges," Butler wrote. "Allowing Shapiro to teach would force Black women — and other Black students and other women — to make the kind of wretched choice no student should have to make: accept that one of their school’s courses is off limits to them because of credible evidence the instructor is prejudiced, or enroll and serve as test cases for whether Shapiro’s claims to the contrary are correct."

My take.

One of the most popular and controversial Tangle pieces I've ever written was titled "Confessing my sins," in which I wrote about some of the horrible things I said and did as a teenager and young adult.

The point of that piece was to elucidate the repercussions of a graceless society and to call for one that allowed more room for human error — especially in a world where so much of what we think, say and do is now public. This does not just go for 16-year-old teenagers like me or famous 44-year-old law professors like Shapiro, but (in my mind) extends to criminals, addicts, politicians and, well, everyone. We just need a lot more grace.

Personally, I thought Shapiro's tweet was stupid and — if you decide to interpret it as such — offensive. But I don't think he should have been suspended, and I certainly don't understand why a nearly four-month investigation was necessary for a single tweet.

First, the tweet: I saw Shapiro's post pop up in my timeline when it happened, before he deleted it. I did not read or interpret the post to mean that any Black nominee would be "lesser than" or that Black women were, generally, lesser than. His meaning seemed quite obvious to me. He felt a different nominee was better qualified, and he believed a "lesser" candidate was going to take the post because Biden had promised to nominate a Black woman to the court.

To me, this was a rather idiotic assertion for a few reasons.

For starters, the wording just made me cringe. If you're typing out the expression "lesser Black woman" for a public post, you might want to pause and think about your language. Worse, though, was Shapiro's arrogant claim that his preferred candidate was "objectively" the best choice, as if such a distinction were even possible. It isn't, as evidenced by the fact many pundits and law experts (whom I agree with) viewed Jackson as the most qualified candidate, regardless of race or gender. Ironically, as Jonathan Chait noted, Georgetown later called Shapiro's tweet "objectively" offensive, which makes me think neither Georgetown nor Shapiro know what the word "objective" actually means.

But was it racist? I really don't think so. In fact, I'd wager that you'd have to take his tweet and read it in the most uncharitable form possible to conclude that he was publicly describing Black women as "lesser than." Of course, it'd be one thing if the tweet was part of some larger kaleidoscope of questionable language and views, or affirmed a pattern of racist or misogynistic dog whistles. But in all the criticisms I've seen of Shapiro, I haven't once seen evidence brought forward that he'd be a racist or sexist professor or that this tweet was part of some ongoing pattern for him. And, absent that context, the tweet far from qualifies as proof of racism.

The most compelling part of Shapiro's self-defense, which I confess ruffled me a little (and called back another piece of mine, "You're not a victim"), was his reference to the tweets of other liberal Georgetown professors. Ones where they called the Republican party a "cult" and "crime syndicate," called another sitting justice a "serial rapist," insisted on the “miserable deaths” and “castration” of “entitled white men,” or insisted "more aggressive tactics" be used to protest a potential striking down of Roe v. Wade. None of these tweets drew any suspensions from the school.

In fact, in the case of the professor who invoked castration and serial rapists and miserable deaths, Georgetown’s president defended her freedom of expression while saying the comments ran counter to the school’s values. It's impossible to honestly (dare I say, objectively?) look at those tweets together and conclude that Shapiro's is so much more grievously offensive that it deserved the kind of attention it got.

Of course, part of the reason for the school's actions was the chorus of faculty and people online calling for swift punishment. Which, again, strikes me as a deeply toxic and counterproductive way for a society (let alone a prestigious law school) to comport itself. The result, actually, is self-evident: Georgetown lost a highly qualified professor who would have brought ideological diversity to its campus. The school's reputation has been tarnished, and its diversity and equity division got harpooned as hypocritical in national news outlets. Shapiro himself appears to be so offended by his treatment that he has now moved further to the right.

Worse yet, stories like this — which journalists, including me, are drawn to — often send a message that “cancel culture is coming for us all.” Really, though, Shapiro will probably land on his feet, and the story is more a tale of poorly enforcing ideological stances in a biased and political fashion, not necessarily proof that what Georgetown aspires to is inherently bad.

So what did we gain, really? The best potential answer is that students at Georgetown — especially Black students — were somehow "protected" by Shapiro's decision not to teach there, so they wouldn’t have to worry about being passed over for opportunities their white counterparts might have received instead. But even that notion is tenuous. It both implies Shapiro was an actual racist or sexist, of which there is scant evidence, and infantilizes Black law students to the degree that they would or could not muster the emotional energy to join Shapiro's classroom because of a single offensive tweet he deleted and apologized for months ago.

That trade, in exchange for everything else, strikes me as a bad deal. For everyone.

Have thoughts about "my take?" You can reply to this email and write in or leave a comment if you're a subscriber.

Your questions, answered.

Q: I know Tangle focuses on offering a diverse range of opinions across the political spectrum. I was wondering if you also try and represent voices from a diverse range of backgrounds, especially in regards to race, culture and gender identity. Would you be willing to share the percentage of podcast guests that identify as female, non-binary and/or non-white? When you're citing other journalists in your newsletter, what percentage come from minority voices? Thank you for the incredible work you are doing!

— Summer, Los Angeles, California

Tangle: I honestly have no idea about "percentages," and I'm not sure calculating it would be a great use of anyone’s time. We have published over 700 newsletters, with roughly six opinions in each newsletter, which would amount to identifying the race, gender and sexual orientation of roughly 4,200 writers. Given the amount of work Tangle already requires, I'm struggling to find time for dinner right now.

That being said, I can tell you that I absolutely do look for representation across race, culture and gender identity — as well as class and political identity. On the podcast, we've had orthodox rabbis, Palestinian activists, trans women, pro-life men, Cuban immigrants, etc. I think we've featured an incredibly diverse set of guests across multiple spectra, which is important because America is a diverse nation.

As a practice for the newsletter, I typically read pieces by quickly scrolling past and ignoring the byline. I do this to avoid poisoning my own biases about the writer, since I am already familiar with many of them. Then, when I find a piece I really appreciate (or disagree with!) and want to include it in Tangle, I often don't know who wrote it until after the fact.

That being said, I am intentional beyond just political ideology in certain places. For instance, in today’s piece, I included Ilya Shapiro's perspective in a story about himself. So, given that he was being accused of racism against Black women, I also thought it'd be important to include the words of other professors at Georgetown, including a Black woman, for balance. To my delight, Alicia Plerhoples (a Black woman and professor at Georgetown) had a very compelling piece up in The Washington Post, so I shared it.

You'll also sometimes see us include perspectives from abroad. I try to do this when we cover a story that has to do with foreign policy, since — for the same reasons ideological, racial, gender and class diversity are important — I think non-American perspectives are vital when covering international issues.

In short: I don't know the numbers, but my goal in Tangle is to provide a diverse range of opinions in every issue and podcast. That, in turn, usually lends itself to a diverse set of writers. And, I hope, readers.

Want to ask a question? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

A story that matters.

President Biden is hosting the "Summit of the Americas" on Wednesday, which will focus on economic, climate and migration issues for countries from Canada to Chile. Biden plans to lay out an economic-recovery agenda that will mobilize investment in Latin America, beef up supply chains, push for more clean energy jobs, and increase trade. He is also expected to announce $300 milion of food insecurity assistance for the region, according to The Wall Street Journal. After the White House said it would exclude Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela from the summit over human rights concerns and lack of democratic institutions, Mexico's president López Obrador backed out, though he is still sending a delegation. You can read about the summit here (subscription).


  • 18.5%. The percentage of America's 481 campuses and universities that have "red light policies" that infringe upon free speech rights of students, according to The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), which tracks such data.
  • 21.3%. The percentage of such campuses last year, according to FIRE, meaning there were fewer restrictive policies on campus this year.
  • 47%. The percentage of students on college campuses who think free speech rights are secure, according to the Knight Foundation.
  • 73%. The percentage who felt that way in 2017, according to the Knight Foundation.
  • 71%. The percentage of Republican students who say it is more important for colleges to allow students to be exposed to all types of speech than to prohibit biased or offensive speech.
  • 55%. The percentage of Democratic students who say it is more important for colleges to allow students to be exposed to all types of speech than to prohibit biased or offensive speech.

Have a nice day.

It's not often you hear about the wealth gap shrinking, but it turns out that just happened. The wealth of America's poorest 50% nearly doubled in the last two years to $3.7 trillion, narrowing the inequality gap for the first time in a generation. The bottom half of American households (generally those with a net worth of less than $166,000 pre-pandemic) now hold their biggest share of U.S. wealth in two decades, according to the Fed. Covid relief measures and a labor market that is hottest for the lowest paid workers are key reasons for the improvement. Bloomberg has the story.

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