Why Do College Students Want Freedom From Speech?

Published October 18, 2017

Responding to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ announcement the Trump administration will begin siding with plaintiffs in challenging public universities that fail to uphold freedom of speech, a high-ranking official of a higher-education lobbying organization protested that the attorney general is zeroing in on a few isolated, atypical controversies within academe.

“I worry that there is a narrative that is being suggested — that is a false narrative — that campuses are not places that respect free speech and the rights of people to engage with and listen to speakers,” Peter McDonough, vice president and general counsel of the American Council on Higher Education, told The Chronicle of Higher Education.

It is remarkable that a higher-ed representative could take such a “don’t worry, be happy” stance after not just the shout-downs and violent shutdowns of speakers at institutions from Berkeley to Middlebury to Claremont McKenna in the recent past, but the proliferation of restrictive speech codes, minuscule free-speech zones, Star Chamber entities called bias response teams, and ideologically motivated speaker disinvitations within American higher education. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has found that at least 92 percent of U.S. colleges have speech codes that threaten First Amendment rights.

While McDonough paints a picture Pollyannas may find comforting to contemplate, a new Brookings Institution survey of undergraduates at U.S. four-year colleges and universities shows just how alarming lack of respect for the First Amendment actually is among today’s students.

Students chose between two options for their ideal college:

Option 1: create a positive learning environment for all students by prohibiting certain speech or expression of viewpoints that are offensive or biased against certain groups of people.

Option 2: create an open learning environment where students are exposed to all types of speech and viewpoints, even if it means allowing speech that is offensive or biased against certain groups of people.

A majority (53 percent) chose the first option. These students want to live their college years in a cocoon protected from ideas that challenge the conventional wisdom. Rock no boats; shelter me, oh alma mater!

Even more distressing was the extent of physical censorship these students favored to protect their tender sensibilities. The survey asked students to ponder their public university’s inviting a “very controversial speaker” who is “known for making offensive and hurtful statements,” and then a student group loudly and persistently shouting down this invitee so the audience could not hear the speech at all. Would students agree or disagree that the student group’s actions were acceptable?

A majority (51 percent) found such shout-downs to be hunky-dory. It seems fair to deduce these student respondents lack the intellectual curiosity to learn about the ideas thwarted speakers wished to express, along with a lack of ability or personal courage to challenge ideas they might find objectionable. They would rather have loud-mouthed louts drown out speech so they don’t have to be bothered.

There was a bit of a political divide: 62 percent of Democrat students favored the shout-downs compared to 39 percent of Republicans and 45 percent of independents. That is a disturbingly large portion of students across the political/ideological spectrum favoring suppression of campus speech.

The next question posed an even more ominous circumstance: “A student group opposed to the speaker uses violence to prevent the speaker from speaking. Do you agree or disagree that the student group’s actions are acceptable?”

It is not terribly reassuring that 81 percent of students found violent shut-downs of speech to be unacceptable, when you consider that one-fifth of respondents deemed violence perfectly OK as a way to squelch free speech. That is a dangerously large contingent, which breaks down as 20 percent of Democrat, 22 percent of Republican and 16 percent of independent students. (By a margin of nine to one, women thought anti-speech violence to be outré, while 30 percent of men were OK with such violence.)

“Violence” — ponder that. The question did not distinguish among the tactics of pushing, punching, stabbing or shooting. Thugs could, theoretically, use any or all these methods to terminate speech — and maybe even the speaker. As Brookings scholar John Villasenor, the study’s author, commented, “Any number significantly above zero is concerning.”

Instead of denying the existence of a problem, university leaders ought to use such opportunities at freshman orientation to make students aware freedom of speech will be respected and protected on campus at all times, without fear or favor. Furthermore, college presidents and boards of trustees ought to make clear deliberate disruptions of speeches or forums will trigger a range of punishments, up to and including expulsion and referral to local law enforcement for prosecution. Meanwhile, K–12 schools and colleges ought to begin the process of restoring knowledge of civics and history to the very heart of what it means to be an educated person.

[Originally Published at the Deseret News]