My Conference Was Canceled. Here’s Why

Who could object to professional training for student journalists? The city of Alexandria, Virginia, apparently.

Less than 72 hours before students arrived for our organization’s annual Collegiate Network Editors Conference, scheduled to start on March 5, faceless bureaucrats shut us down. The supposed reason is public health, but dig a little deeper, and it seems cancel culture is the real culprit—or rather, the cultural revolution that’s tearing America apart.

The news of our cancellation came out of nowhere. We planned our conference some six months ago and followed the law to the letter. Virginia’s COVID-19 regulations allow hotels to host educational events of any size, and we designed our event to meet state standards. We planned to bring together about 80 top student journalists from campuses like Stanford, Princeton, and Hillsdale College. They would have received the tools and training they need to succeed, both on campus and after they graduate.

But someone doesn’t like us. On March 5, the Alexandria Health Department notified our hotel that it had received an anonymous complaint alleging our event would be unsafe. The bureaucracy agreed immediately. Officials arbitrarily reclassified our group as a “networking organization” and our conference as a “social gathering,” with a limit of 10 people. With the stroke of a pen, our conference was made all but illegal.

This decision flies in the face of reason. We’re not a networking organization; we’re purely educational—in fact, our slogan is “educating for liberty.” Nor is our conference a “social gathering”: it offers students training workshops and mentorship opportunities with prominent media voices. On the health front, we agreed to comply with all state and local health requirements. 

But the problem surely isn’t our conference. The city, after all, seems fine with a big dance party scheduled for this weekend

Most likely, what damned us to cancellation is the fact that we’re conservative.

Our student attendees are the type of critical thinkers who are regularly shouted down in classrooms. That is why they run conservative publications: to challenge the anti-inquiry atmosphere on college campuses. For instance, with our organization’s support, two attendees recently founded the Chicago Thinker at the University of Chicago. Its mission is to “embrac[e] the experience of unfettered inquiry and free expression.” 

Now cancel culture is following our students off-campus, too.

Our organization opposes progressive orthodoxy on college campuses. We fill the void left by modern higher education by teaching students about America’s principles and tradition of liberty. Put simply, we seek to widen the debate at a time when it’s being narrowed nationwide.

Perhaps the biggest surprise, then, is that Alexandria didn’t cancel our conference sooner. Perhaps “public health” is a convenient excuse for progressives to ban things they don’t like.

We have found a new venue in another city, one that won’t silence us in the name of “science” and “safety.” Yet America is nowhere close to addressing the crisis of cancellation, censorship, and conformity—a crisis that started with the cultural revolution that swept college campuses in the 1960s and now holds the country hostage. It will prove fatal if not addressed.

Free speech, the freedom of assembly, and the free exchange of ideas through civil discourse are not quaint anachronisms. They are foundational to American life. Defending those freedoms is one of the most pressing needs of our time. It will require students, educators, lawyers, and lawmakers alike to work hard in the face of hostility.

But above all else, defending our First Amendment freedoms requires the American people to rediscover a certain sense of charity toward one another. We must tolerate those with views we oppose. We must accommodate those we dislike or despise. We must give our fellow citizens the space they need to speak, whether we listen or not. If we regain that sense of kindness and respect, America won’t have to worry about shutting down professional training conferences for student journalists.

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