Cancel Culture and Its Conflict With Criminal Justice Reform

July 17, 2020

By Jill K. Sanders, Esq.

Online boycotts seem to happen nearly every day to celebrities and politicians. Sometimes it happens to a restaurant or business. And even non-public figures can be the target of these efforts. Today’s cancel culture is a way to hold people accountable for both criminal and non-criminal offensive behavior. But can it be reconciled with the current movement toward reforming the criminal justice system?


What Is Cancel Culture?

Cancel culture is a form of online boycott where an individual is boycotted for objectionable or offensive behaviors. It is, in essence, group shaming. It most often involves a celebrity who has expressed a controversial or questionable opinion, either through actions or speech. The celebrity will be called out on social media for their behavior. There will also be a call for boycotting their work. Overall, it is a call to take away that celebrity’s public platform and influence.

Sometimes, the cancelling will be directed at a non-celebrity. It can be directed at an individual, restaurant, or company. Names and contact information may be published along other personal details – even home addresses. Employers can also be contacted in an effort to get people fired. And businesses can be destroyed by negative reviews posted online.


Examples of Cancel Culture

Recently, a white New York woman named Amy Cooper became the subject of a cancel culture effort. When walking her dog in Central Park, a black man who was in the park to watch birds asked her to leash her dog. The two exchanged words, and she called 911 on the man. She told police she was being threatened by the man, and specifically referred to him as an “African American man.” And it turned out the man was recording the interaction and had committed no crime. Ms. Cooper was outed on social media for her actions. She has since lost her job, and for a period of time lost custody of her dog. Ms. Cooper is now a social pariah. She has also been issued a Desk Appearance Ticket for falsely reporting an incident after calls for law enforcement to prosecute her. Ms. Cooper has effectively been cancelled.

Just this week, another case of cancel culture has been directed at comedian Ellen Degeneres. Employees are alleging a toxic work environment on the set of her talkshow, including discriminatory comments and intimidation. Those who didn’t speak up about the hostile work setting were rewarded with perks such as iPhones and other gifts. Ellen, who holds herself out as a friendly and giving person who encourages others to “be kind,” is now subject to a movement to have her cancelled. How Ellen will emerge from the incident remains to be seen.


Why Cancel Culture Conflicts With Criminal Justice Reform

Cancel culture provides an outlet to deal with injustices that may not always be prosecutable in the criminal justice system. For example, sexual assault cases are often difficult to prosecute. Outing someone on social media and getting them cancelled may be a way for a perpetrator to be held accountable, and also may help a victim find closure.

Yet in the past several years, advocates have been pushing to make the criminal justice system more restorative. Restorative justice is the future of the criminal justice system. It emphasizes repairing the harm caused by criminal behavior, rather than just punishing the perpetrator. Restorative justice helps people address the underlying causes of their criminal behavior, and gives them a path forward toward redemption. It is a conversation about how to break the cycle of violence, produce safer communities, and restore individuals so they can become productive citizens.

Many times, however, cancel culture flies in the face of restorative justice. Rather than having a conversation about how to restore those involved in criminal acts, perpetrators are just cancelled. There is no path to healing, to learning, or to making things right. Cancel culture is, in essence, very carceral in that perpetrators are merely punished, and are not given an opportunity to make amends or address the underlying issues which resulted in their behaviors.


Case Study in Cancel Culture

Our 18-year-old client “John Doe” was arrested for Aggravated Harassment in the First Degree as a hate crime. He had put up posters at his college campus which contained swastikas. While initially this seemed to be dissemination of Nazi propaganda, in reality the posters mocked Hitler, as the poster quoted a famous Broadway show and film “The Producers.”

Nevertheless, our client came to understand the harm his posters caused. John engaged in a series of efforts to truly understand the Jewish experience during the Holocaust. He began meeting with a Rabbi, visited the Museum of Jewish Heritage in NYC, and watched movies and read books suggested by the Rabbi. He also met with the Rabbi and a group of Jewish students, discussed his arrest and the incident with his peers, and attended an event where a Holocaust survivor shared her personal experience. Throughout this period, John also participated in his local church’s food pantry program.

Despite these efforts, John has been subject to continuing efforts to have him removed from his new college. A local anti-capitalist league has put up posters at his school. Students have also posted petitions online to have him removed from the college. When are his efforts at restorative justice enough? Must our client John still be cancelled? Should he never be allowed to attend college, or work, or move on from his mistake? Is there any way for him to find redemption?


What to Do If You’ve Been Targeted

If you have been the victim of cancel culture, contact us today. Our attorneys are prepared to advise you on how to protect yourself when it comes to your reputation. And we are here to help you understand your legal rights when it comes to defamation, loss of employment, and tortious interference with business activities.