College Students See Free Speech on Campus as a Problem

by James C. Sherlock Updated Sept 30 3:15 PM

The results of a new, rigorously analyzed and very large-scale scientific survey of nearly 20,000 students’ perspectives of free speech at 55 different universities in the U.S. are beyond troubling.

We will look at the overall results and specific results for the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech.

This was the largest survey  of college students ever conducted about free speech on their campuses.

Real Clear Education (RCE) and The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) conducted the survey and ranked the schools. The measures of student perceptions of free speech included tolerance, openness, administration support and self expression.

  • Overall. The overall openness scores, the weighted combined score on five dimensions of free speech of all but eight of the 55 universities, including Virginia and Virginia Tech, were ranked positively overall for their free speech climates by between 50% and 56% of their students.
  • Tolerance measured the students’ willingness to allow controversial speakers to come and speak at their campus. UVa, 48.7, Virginia Tech 49.2.
  • Openness measures the student’s perceived ability to have difficult conversation on campus. UVa 60%, Virginia Tech 68.4.%.
  • Administration Support. The highest scores among the five indicators of free speech tested were generally in administration support for free speech, all but 13 of which were rated above 60%. Virginia 70% and Virginia Tech 61.5%. Every school surveyed earned a higher overall score for administrative support for free speech than its final, overall tally. Whatever support the administrations may have offered, it was not reflected in campus attitudes.
  • Self Expression. As for ability to speak their minds, only 43% of UVa students felt they could do so, 48.5% of Virginia Tech students. 35.9% at Stanford. As for the Ivy League, 37.3% at Yale.  35.4% at Harvard. 35.3% at Cornell. 31.6% at Dartmouth.  Pay a fortune to keep your mouth shut.

The Speech Code rankings here are developed annually by Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a national campus free-speech organization, which measures whether colleges restrict student speech that is protected by the First Amendment. By their assessment, UVa does not. Tech does somewhat. Harvard and Princeton does a lot.

The reports authors weighted the results with 80% percent of each school’s score on tolerance and openness. The remaining 20% of the score was based on the freedom students feel to express their opinions, their perception of the administration’s support for free speech and FIRE’s rating of each school’s official policies toward free speech.

I personally was more concerned with the scores on self expression, the students’ perceived ability to speak their minds, than any of the rest. Only 43% of UVa students felt they could do so, 48.5% of Virginia Tech students. 37.3% at Yale. 35.9% at Stanford. 35.4% at Harvard. 35.3% at Cornell. 31.6% at Dartmouth.

other UVA and VIRGINIA TECH SURVEY HIGHLIGHTS

How many were surveyed at Virginia and Virginia Tech? 421 UVa students. 395 at Virginia Tech.

Highlights of the UVa survey:

  • 28% of students say it is never acceptable to shout down a speaker on campus.
  • 61% of students are confident that the administration will defend the speaker’s rights in a free speech controversy.
  • 79% of students say it is never acceptable to use violent protest to stop a speech on campus.
  • Students are most uncomfortable expressing an unpopular opinion on a social media account tied to one’s name.
  • Race is the topic most frequently identified by students as difficult to have an open and honest conversation about on campus.

Highlights of Virginia Tech Survey:

  • 39% of students say it is never acceptable to shoutdown a speaker on campus.
  • 51% of students are confident that the administration will defend the speaker’s rights in a free speech controversy.
  • 84% of students say it is never acceptable to use violent protest to stop a speech on campus.
  • Students are most uncomfortable publicly disagreeing with a professor about a controversial topic.
  • Gun control is the topic most frequently identified by students as difficult to have an open and honest conversation about on campus.

other National Survey HIGHLIGHTS

The report that accompanied the college free speech rankings revealed, inter alia:

60% of students can recall at least one time during their college experience when they did not share their perspective for fear of how others would respond.

While 57% of students say their college would defend a speaker’s right to express his or her views in the case of a controversy over “offensive” expression, a disturbingly large minority, 42%, believe their college would punish the speaker for making the statement. Over 45% of college students identified race as a challenging topic to discuss on campus, the highest of any controversial topic asked about.

Students’ assessment of free speech on campus is, at least in part, driven by their political ideology, and whether or not they align with the majority viewpoint at their college.

What were the political leanings of the students responding?  Using a seven-point scale from extremely liberal–point 1–to extremely conservative–point 7–where would you place yourself on this scale?

  • 9% Extremely liberal
  • 25% Liberal
  • 17% Slightly liberal
  • 23% Moderate
  • 13% Slightly conservative
  • 10% Conservative
  • 2% Extremely conservative
  • 1% Refused
  • 100% Total

Then there is the issue of “social life”.  [Asked if respondent disapproved of Trump’s performance] Even if you are not currently single or dating, how difficult would it be for you to date someone who supports Donald Trump?

  • 27% Impossible
  • 28% Very difficult
  • 23% Somewhat difficult
  • 15% Not too difficult
  • 6% Not at all difficult
  • 0% Refused

In a September 29 article, Nathan Harden of Real Clear Education wrote:

“The survey reveals some startling facts. Almost 20% of students say that using violence to stop an unwanted speech or event is in some cases acceptable. Among Ivy League students, 36% said that it was “always” or “sometimes” acceptable to shout down a speaker one doesn’t like.

Self-censorship is also a major problem. Sixty percent of college students say they have kept quiet due to fear of how others would respond. Among conservative students, that number is 72%.

Colleges have become perilous places to express unpopular ideas. Professors and students fear being shouted down, shunned, or, in some cases, fired or expelled. This has a chilling effect on the classroom.

Jonathan Haidt, a professor at New York University, frames the problem this way: “At my university we have a ‘bias response line.’ Students are encouraged to anonymously report anyone who says anything that offends them. So, as a professor, I no longer take risks; I must teach to the most easily offended student in the class. I therefore avoid saying or doing anything provocative. My classes are less fun and engaging.”

ASSESSMENT

So, it appears from these results that the suppression of free speech is not perceived to be centered in the University administrations, but rather among the students themselves.

Why university administrations do not intervene to fix the problem is not addressed.

Where the students learn this attitude also is not addressed. I suspect but cannot prove that undergraduates largely do not arrive at college with these attitudes.

I hope that the next survey can measure the attitudes of incoming freshmen the summer before their matriculation.

But whatever the cause, radicalized, intolerant peers are perceived by the students to be suppressing free speech at the universities.

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10 responses to “College Students See Free Speech on Campus as a Problem

  1. I suppose we should be grateful UVa and Virginia Tech haven’t reached Ivy League-levels of free speech repression. That’s a small consolation. But the fact that 40% to 50% of students — primarily conservative students, of course — is still cause for great concern.

    You raise a really good point. The constraints don’t necessarily arise from administrative restrictions. Where, then, do they come from? Are the UVa and Virginia Tech administrations willing to tolerate the behavior of intolerant minorities (and I don’t mean ethnic/racial minorities in this context)?

    Let’s take a concrete example. In the University of Virginia “F— You” sign controversy, the administration is not repressing speech. Indeed, it is actively defending the student’s right to speak freely and profanely.

    But let’s examine a different scenario. What if a Lawn resident posted an “All Lives Matter” sign on his door. Would the administration defend that? Would the administration assign people to ensure that no one tore the sign down? I would find such a response inconceivable. More likely, such a sign would be viewed as an offending and wounding provocation that should be removed. Of course, that’s speculation. We won’t know what the administration would do until such an event occurred.

    • What is the basis for your thinking an “All Lives Matter” sign “would be viewed as an offending and wounding provocation that should be removed”? You say that it is speculation, but do you have anything, personal experience or past history, for example, which leads you to voice such a speculation? Or is it just a guess based on your obvious general disagreement with the university administration? (By the way, I find the F UVa sign not only tasteless, but offensive.)

    • re: ” But the fact that 40% to 50% of students — primarily conservative students, of course — is still cause for great concern.”

      How did you deduce how many students and their ideology?

  2. One of my former students had her Young Republicans Club display wrecked in front of her last spring in a campus building at UVA. She does not challenge her professors views in the former Curry School. Afraid of grade retaliation. Same deal with her cooperating teacher for student teaching. Such a shame.

  3. Was curious about their polling methodology… were they asking all students randomly ?

  4. At 3:15 today, I added additional data in the OTHER UVA AND VIRGINIA TECH SURVEY HIGHLIGHTS and OTHER NATIONAL SURVEY HIGHLIGHTS sections above to help readers interpret the findings.

  5. What do you expect when a vice presidential candidate has expressed her belief in religious tests for judges, as has a key staff member of her running mate, with no rebuke from their party or its lackey the MSM. There is bigotry and there is protected bigotry.

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