When I Was “Canceled” at UVa

by Matthew Cameron

Cancel culture has been a hot topic in 2020. Most recently, it’s become a discussion point among those concerned about the state of academic freedom and intellectual diversity at my own alma mater, the University of Virginia.

The strongest critique of cancel culture at UVA emerged in October when alumnus Joel Gardner published an open letter to University President Jim Ryan imploring him to “strongly condemn the ‘cancel culture’ practice” and “focus on the real diversity that is important on college campuses–diversity of thought–rather than diversity of race, ethnicity and gender which has proven to be divisive.”

Reading Gardner’s letter and follow-up column for the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, I was reminded of my own brush with cancel culture as a student newspaper editor at UVA almost a decade ago. Recalling that tumultuous time inspires within me the same concern that Gardner and others have expressed about the threat of intellectual intimidation within our campus communities.

Yet my experience also illustrates a problem with Gardner’s conclusion that “the main culprit behind these problems has been the purposeful politicization of our college communities” and his recommendation that UVA should “emphasize the traditions and values that have bound Wahoos together for decades — most especially honor and trust.”

Contra Gardner and others who consider the “woke mob” to be the primary driving force behind cancel culture on campus (1), my near cancellation as a student newspaper editor shows that traditionalists can pose an equal risk to intellectual freedom and diversity. In fact, “woke” ideology around racial and social justice might actually provide a useful intellectual counterbalance to the hegemony of traditionalist ideas that have governed large parts of campus life and American society for decades.

Confidential cancellation

My close encounter with cancellation began early in the fall semester of my third year at UVA. While serving as the Executive Editor of The Cavalier Daily student newspaper, I faced a situation that every editor dreads: a staff member had committed repeated acts of plagiarism.

When we discovered the issue, my fellow editors and I were obliged to take three actions. First, we reported the plagiarism to the University’s Honor Committee. Second, we removed the writer from our staff and retracted the affected articles from our website. And third, we published an editorial informing our readers of the incident and our response.

The latter two steps were in accordance with journalistic best practices. The first step was required to uphold a commitment we had made to one of higher education’s most rigorous honor systems.

The UVA Honor System goes far beyond merely prohibiting lying, cheating, and stealing. Honor is a way of life at UVA. Upon entering the University, every first-year student gathers on the Lawn and signs a pledge stating they will comply with the standards of Honor throughout their four years. During our time at the University, students are regularly reminded that an Honor Code infraction is met with only one punishment: expulsion. And upon graduation, we are said to have worn “the honors of Honor.”

Most of the time, the Honor System works as it should. It inspires within some UVA students a strong sense of solidarity and pride. For others, it serves as a useful deterrent to behavior that might degrade the quality of our community and academic experience. But in some cases, Honor can devour its own — as happens with any system of norms that is so ironclad that a dissenting opinion or mere difference in interpretation might be deemed too dangerous to tolerate.

In my case, it was the latter that brought the wrath of the Honor System upon me and my fellow editors. Because we had included one line in our editorial acknowledging that we reported the plagiarism incident to the Honor Committee, the Committee chair filed charges against me and my fellow editors for allegedly being non-compliant with the Honor System’s confidentiality rules. The penalty for violating those rules was potentially as severe as the sanction for violating the Honor Code itself: expulsion.

The cancel committee

However, there were two obvious reasons why the Honor Committee chair had erred in bringing these charges against us.

First, my fellow editors and I had taken care not to identify the plagiarist who would be a part of the Honor proceedings, meaning we were actually compliant with Honor’s goal of protecting student privacy.

And second, the student judiciary committee that would hear our case had specifically stated in its constitution that it lacked jurisdiction over journalistic groups including The Cavalier Daily. (2)

Although these facts were obvious enough that we could determine within days (and with the help of some excellent lawyers) that our defense was rock solid, the case dragged on for more than a month before all of the charges were finally dropped. It led to many sleepless nights spent researching the history of Honor and student media while drafting petitions to dismiss our case. It created more than a few awkward encounters with University administrators attempting to broach a compromise that would resolve our case. It generated local and national press attention. And it became the defining experience of my third year at UVA.

But more importantly, it showed me how easily facts and rights can be swept aside in the pursuit of upholding such a powerful set of traditions, customs, and historical values. Throughout our entire ordeal, we were instructed to refrain from discussing our case with anyone except our University-appointed counselor. Initially, it was not even clear whether we could seek advice from family members or outside legal counsel. When we pointed out the student judiciary committee’s lack of jurisdiction and our compliance with the goal of protecting student privacy, our arguments were ignored. And while this played out, we were threatened with additional litigation when our staff chose to report on this inherently newsworthy case.

Our story is hardly unique, as UVA’s Honor Committee has faced many controversies surrounding its approach to student rights and the proportionality of its punishments. Yet I believe our case in particular highlights a difficult truth that must be acknowledged in the discussion around cancel culture:

There has always been a limit to the type of viewpoints and perspectives that are welcome in American society and higher education, and historically these limits have protected traditionalists. (3)

As my experience shows, merely voicing in one sentence of one editorial a different interpretation of the customs and values surrounding the UVA Honor System nearly led to my expulsion.

Cancellation’s consequences

There are several reasons why I consider my experience with the UVA Honor System to be a textbook example of cancel culture’s traditionalist roots and the risk they pose to the free exchange of ideas.

First, this was the only concrete threat I ever faced to my status as a student during my four years at UVA. I never faced a comparable risk from expressing contrarian opinions in the classroom and the pages of the newspaper that challenged progressive rather than traditionalist ideas. (4)

Second, the threat that I faced from Honor as a relatively prominent and protected member of the UVA community paled in comparison to the graver risks that a less privileged student would have faced in a similar situation. Imagine the self-censorship and conformity that would be required of an undocumented student or Pell Grant recipient who was unfairly accused of violating the Honor Code — they might not have had the luxury of conferring with pro bono lawyers or publicizing their own situation in defiance of guidelines from University administrators.

And third, my encounter with Honor only hints at the type of dissenting opinions and ideas that have likely been muffled by powerful systems that protect tradition and custom. In the specific scenario I described, my fellow editors and I didn’t even express a controversial opinion or criticism of the Honor System — we merely happened to interpret the System’s values slightly differently from the person in charge of the Honor Committee. Far more progressive reinterpretations of traditional customs and values have likely been suppressed throughout American history because they directly challenge established power structures that control so much of our lives.

The point of my story is not to minimize the threat of excess from those on the Left who would seek to delegitimize any pushback against emerging ideas such as police abolition or critical race theory. To be clear, we can and must have rigorous debates about the usefulness of these ideas and the tactics with which certain elements of the Left are pursuing them.

But we should not look solely to our traditions, customs, and historical values for examples of how that debate should be conducted. Instead, we must take the better elements of higher education — an emphasis on critical thinking, logical reasoning, and clear communication — and combine them with an enlightened sense of fairness, justice, and equity to facilitate the free exchange of ideas that will be necessary to solve challenges on and off campus in the years and decades ahead.

Thank you to Jason Ally and Andrew Seidman for reviewing this post.

Matthew Cameron, a member of the UVa Class of 2013, lives in Evanston, Ill. He serves as president of the Cavalier Daily Alumni Association, but his views are his own. This column was published originally on his personal Substack newsletter.


Footnotes

  1. I’ll use the generic term “campus,” rather than the UVA-specific term “Grounds,” throughout this article. It’s a broader and more accessible term that can describe events happening at UVA and within other university communities.
  2. The relevant passage was Article II, Section D, Clause 5 of the University Judiciary Committee’s Constitution, which identified “the exercise of journalistic and editorial functions by student groups” as one of the categories that is beyond the Committee’s jurisdiction.
  3. Of course, my experience only directly reflects a narrow slice of American higher education — the liberal arts university. However, I do believe the liberal arts university in this context can serve as a microcosm for broader American society.
  4. To cite just one example, I can recall vividly when I volunteered to argue against US intervention in Libya in front of dozens of students, TAs, and my professor during an Ethics and Human Rights class. As you can imagine, it was difficult to make the case for allowing the survival of Muammar al-Gaddafi’s regime in a class about human rights. However, perhaps because I honestly believed in my position and came prepared to defend it, I faced no retribution from my fellow students or my professor, who praised my efforts and went on to become one of my closest mentors.
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13 responses to “When I Was “Canceled” at UVa

  1. Matthew, thanks for contributing a view at odds of what normally gets published on the blog. While I do not discount the ordeal you went through (nor the necessity of hiring lawyers), I would suggest that your incident differs from modern-day “cancel culture” in that you were not persecuted for your political views or for violating some new cultural taboo. You were targeted for a perceived violation of the honor code. I think that’s a crucial distinction.

    • I agree. There is a difference between being attacked for expressing unpopular views or political beliefs and being the victim of an unjust application of the university honor code. One of those differences is that one can defend oneself against an unjust application of a written rule or regulation, while the rules the “cancel culture” enforces are often unwritten, are entirely inconsistent and are impossible to keep track of from one day to the next. How can one defend oneself against that?

  2. Thank you for this well-articulated description of how traditionalists also try to intimidate those with whom they disagree.

  3. While I echo JB in thanking you, Mr. Cameron, for bringing a different view to this space, I also agree with him that your case isn’t part of what has been criticized here under the name of “cancel culture”. You upheld no particular political principles and you violated no newly-introduced and politically-driven cultural taboo. This was a gross and horrible overreaction, and you deserve every sympathy and support for what you were made to undergo, but this simply isn’t what most people mean by “cancel culture”.

    As a sidebar, let me make a controversial remark; as an alum and as someone who worked at the University for several decades, the idea that “Honor is a way of life at UVA.” is completely at odds with my experience. I saw more than enough casual lying and cheating (although very little stealing) among students to be sure that the Honor System was treated much like the old board game “Operation”– you win by getting as close to the edge as possible while successfully avoiding the sensor that alerts on an out-of-bounds move. Actually touching out isn’t the bad move– being caught is.

  4. Thank you Anonymous for this:
    “the idea that “Honor is a way of life at UVA.” is completely at odds with my experience. I saw more than enough casual lying and cheating (although very little stealing) among students to be sure that the Honor System was treated much like the old board game “Operation”– you win by getting as close to the edge as possible while successfully avoiding the sensor that alerts on an out-of-bounds move. Actually touching out isn’t the bad move– being caught is.”

    I agree wholeheartedly with your your experience. In my view, lying has become an art form at UVA. It is plain from the archives of Bacon’s Rebellion that, at UVA, the truth of most everything of importance is very hard to find and rely on at UVA, especially as regards those who run UVA. And it has been that way for far too long.

  5. Matthew, you should thank the Honor Committee for not doing their job and expelling you for “supposedly” violating confidentiality rules rather than wasting our time whining.

    There is a clear and fundamental responsibility in any organization enforcing an honor code to maintain the anonymity of those accused of violations.

    The fact that your case was referred to the Judiciary Committee and not the Honor Committee itself is what saved you and you know it. As the Washington Post story recounted, “the constitution of the U-Va. Judiciary Committee states that the group has no jurisdiction over student journalism.”

    “One sentence in a editorial” in the student newspaper. And you feign amazement that that anyone might think that editorial compromised the identity of the accused? Especially after “we removed the writer from our staff and retracted the affected articles from our website.”

    And no one figured out who the accused was? Seriously?

    Could you not have quietly suspended the accused and waited until after an Honor Committee decision in the case to fire him or her and pull down the articles?

    Of course you could have. You are clearly not that stupid. You wanted the story.

    You should have left the subject alone rather than whining about the unfairness of the process – unfairness to you. A “different view” my foot.

    • Capt. Sherlock:

      You wrote exactly what I was thinking as I read the article. The confidentiality of the student journalist accused of an honor offense was effectively betrayed by the actions of this blog post’s author. Whether or not that should be an honor offense is perhaps a good question. However, pretending to be persecuted by being held to account for such an action is absurd.

      I also agree with you that Mr. Cameron was very lucky not to have been expelled. He was credibly accused of a violation that results in suspension and was saved by a loophole that forbids the Judiciary Committee from acting against members of the student press.

      I agree with Jim Bacon that this was not attempted cancel culture by any reasonable definition of that term. Mr. Cameron never makes the case that either his political beliefs or his violation of newly woke rules of discourse caused him to be accused of violating the confidentiality of a person accused of an honor offense. Rather, it was Cameron’s public actions that caused him to be credibly accused of a violation.

      Finally, nobody with a gnat’s level understanding of history believes that “cancel culture” is either new or outside the use of so-called traditionalists. The McCarthy hearings were testament to traditionalists using rumor and innuendo during an period of anti-Communist fervor to cancel the careers of dozens, if not hundreds, of people.

  6. I would not say this is the traditionalist roots of cancel culture.
    I would call it more humans using power to achieve personal ends, which is why you should want to limit power and to entrust it only to people with real moral compasses. There is perhaps no single place more prone to the petty use of power than a University. The cancel culture is more about the power of the mob and the “ally”-ship of the college administrations to stifle ideas with which they disagree. Real leaders at real institutions of higher learning would snuff cancellation out and provide an atmosphere where vigorous debate of issues can occur without fear of recrimination – academically, personally, socially, physically, economically.

    • Publius above hits nail squarely on the head. But in addition there is at UVA an inherently corrupt institution structure that breeds dishonestly on a massive scale as explained earlier.

  7. Mr. Cameron,

    Thank you for sharing. I am a “traditional” alumnus but completely agree that the case against you and your editors was absurd. You did the right thing, the tough and honorable thing, and were almost railroaded out. Reminiscent of the phrase “let no good deed go unpunished.”

    As a personal aside, our daughter Carroll (’14) was a member of the Honor Committee , representing accused students. She may have helped you in your case!

    • “She may have helped you in your case!”… and been sued.

      Several months back I related the tale of my ex-wife, as a professor, taking some students before the HC at W&M for cheating. She was the one put on trial. She was the one who needed a lawyer. She was the one with legal exposure.

      I wouldn’t let my kid be a member on an HC without a preemptive Presidential pardon.

  8. This silliness with the academy has gotten to the point that the only way to facilitate change is for alumni to start voting with their checkbooks; particularly those with deep pockets. Integrity and scholarship went out the window decades ago. The administration is only concerned about the bottom line so why continue to contribute to that? When the fundraising letter arrives, return it with a note explaining your disapproval (it’s usually postage paid anyway). I’ve done this often in recent months and it is incredibly liberating.

  9. I’m surprised that the HC would not have warned to keep confidentiality.
    Geeze, in the 70s they used to post grades until someone sued because of breached confidentiality.
    Then, they used SSN to post grades, but of course, that ended in the 80s when someone sued for the use of SSNs as student IDs because of ID theft and credit theft.
    So, they used randomly assigned student numbers until someone sued because student ID numbers weren’t confidential enough to prevent someone from getting grade results for others.
    Fortunately, along came email in the 90s… until the school email got hacked, and someone sued because their grades were plastered up in the dorms.

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