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The reality of the “campus free speech debate”

One of the hottest talking points of recent years is the “free speech crisis” purportedly sweeping college campuses nationwide. Conservative activists claim that universities are indoctrinating students into liberal thought, that professors direct students towards a dismissal of conservative ideas and that higher education is stifling free thought.

It’s a narrative that’s been spread by people across the political spectrum. Fox News has an entire page dedicated to stories about college-advocated censorship of conservative ideas. Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) hosts a similar page on their official site.

But data from several studies indicates that popular claims about free speech on college campuses are highly inaccurate. In fact, there is very little evidence to support the existence of a free speech crisis in higher education at all.

The Young and the First

As of late, young people have been characterized as being intolerant or outright against the principles of the First Amendment. Research suggests otherwise.

In a 2016 survey conducted by the nonpartisan Knight Foundation, 78 percent of college-age respondents believed it was more important for colleges to “create an open learning environment where students are exposed to all types of speech and viewpoints.” Only 22 percent of those surveyed indicated support for restricting speech.

A report published on Niskanen by economist and public policy analyst Jeffrey Adam Sachs disputes several claims made about young people aged 18-24. Data suggests that people aged 18-24 are less likely to support free speech bans than older people. Their views on free speech going too far are more or less on average with those aged 35-44.

In fact, support for the First Amendment is at its strongest level yet recorded. 56 percent of high schoolers surveyed disagreed with the notion of limiting free speech rights. High schoolers displayed consistent levels of support when presented with more specific speech-related scenarios, indicating that the youth of America understand the value of the First Amendment both in principle and in practice.

Exposure and Beliefs

Part of the narrative of the “free speech crisis” is a belief that institutes of higher education are converting students to liberal thought. It is true that 60 percent of college faculty identify as liberal, but whether or not this has a stifling effect on research, discourse, and general education is a very different story.

Andrew Collins’20, chair of the Beloit chapter of YAF, stated in an email that this left-leaning ideological balance was not necessarily a bad thing, given that people are allowed to believe what they want to believe, but that the situation at present is unique. Collins cited the belief that words can amount to physical violence as being emblematic of the problem, that such a concept could only exist within liberal academia, and that ideas such as these are pushed by academics onto their students.

“When you listen to students trot out this ‘violence’ canard it sounds as if they are reading from a script,” Collins wrote. “And indeed, should you visit a few of their classes, you will find that they are!”

Is there any harm in considering a conceptual idea posited by a professor at an institution of higher learning? Colleges are environments designed for experimental thought, after all, and there is nothing wrong with a professor posing a more radical concept for the consideration of their students.

What is relevant is whether or not students are truly being coerced to buy into liberal ideas and distrust conservative ones. The data, again, suggests not.

IDEALS is a national study of college students conducted by a group of academics researching how different religious, political and philosophical views interact. It began studying students as they entered college in 2015. IDEALS collected data on a wide variety of topics, and tracked how students’ attitudes toward conservative and liberal ideologies changed by their second year of school.

A nationally representative sample of over 7,000 undergraduates at more than 120 colleges were asked a series of questions at the beginning of their freshman and sophomore years: to what extent did they think liberals and conservatives were ethical, made positive contributions to society, were people each student had something in common with and did they have a positive attitude toward each group.

48 percent of respondents viewed liberals more favorably in their second year in college than when they first arrived on campus. Among those same students, 50 percent also viewed conservatives more favorably. 31 percent of students developed more negative attitudes towards conservatives. However, 30 percent of respondents developed more negative attitudes towards liberals. It’s almost perfectly balanced.

People who entered college with negative views of conservatives or liberals had their attitudes soften in college. Students trend towards favoring liberal views over conservative ones, but this gap does not widen in the first two years of college. It becomes difficult to generalize all liberals or conservatives as wrongheaded when you’re living, eating, and learning amongst one another. Exposure to people of other walks of life is humanizing in both directions.

Such data trends were repeated across both public and private colleges.

What this indicates is that college is generally associated with gains in appreciation of views across the political spectrum. This cannot be responsibly called a crisis. It would appear that people are learning how to think, which is what college is for.

“Censorship Exposed”

In approaching the “campus free speech crisis” it would appear that there’s very little fire. Where, then, is all this smoke coming from?

Hard research is harder to sell than sensational anecdotes. Stories about people disrupting lectures or yelling at speakers have a lengthy shelf life in contemporary media. Pundits far-removed from the reality of day-to-day life on college campuses have used these stories as material to whip up anxiety about the state of free speech in higher education.

Between May 2016 and November 2017 alone, the New York Times published 24 articles and op-eds on the free speech crisis. As was previously mentioned, Fox News has an entire web page devoted to stories on “Campus Craziness.” YAF has a similar page devoted to its Censorship Exposed Project.

Collins stated that his particular views on free speech do not represent those of YAF. “From what I understand, the Censorship Exposed project highlights specific incidents of stifling or attempting to control speech at public universities.” Collins stated in an email. “I am well aware that the items highlighted are not always so black and white as ‘University of xxxx bans conservative newspaper,’ but it’s still censorship by any other name.”

Collins cited stories of raised security fees for conservative speakers, as well as programs about speech held separate from or in response to a given speaker, as alleged forms of censorship.

Programs held by another group or organization on campus cannot reasonably be construed as censorship. An institution’s financial decisions with regards to the First Amendment can certainly be called into question, but raised security fees make more sense when considering the fact that many conservative speakers brought to college campuses have built a reputation around incendiary confrontation.

Sanford Ungar, director of the Free Speech Project (which has conducted a study on campus free speech with similarly underwhelming results) observed that incidents on college campuses where conservative visitors have been disinvited have often involved the same few speakers: Ben Shapiro, Milo Yiannopoulos, Ann Coulter, and Charles Murray. Yiannopoulos alone made up 11 of the 42 incidents of disinvitation that occurred in 2016.

These speakers are provocateurs by nature. Take Shapiro, for example, whose online presence consists in large part of videos of him arguing with people who confront him on his controversial views. These videos are titled in the same tonal register as wrestling matches.

This same brand of Shapiro reactionism is presented several times on the YAF website, and the speaker is presently contracted by the organization to do a college campus tour in the fall of 2019.

Wherever Shapiro goes, controversy is advertised. An article on the YAF website criticizes the University of Michigan’s History department for holding a separate panel in response to Shapiro’s appearance at their school.

“Calling their plans ‘an exciting and important event in response to Ben Shapiro’s visit to campus,’ the University of Michigan’s History Department has chosen not to engage in the free and open exchange of ideas, but hide from it.”

There are some issues with this statement. By hosting a panel in response to an event, the University of Michigan is in fact participating in the open exchange of ideas. There is nothing closed or censorious about this behavior. It’s perfectly within Shapiro’s rights to have his lecture, and it’s within everyone else’s rights to decide whether or not they’d like to go.

The writer is demanding people come and listen to Shapiro, and characterizing all those who exercise their right to go to a different event at the same time as being censorious. They are not advocating for free speech. They are trying to monopolize its definition.

Controversy is not the result, it is the objective. When speakers like Shapiro are invited to college campuses, they expect a fight. By provoking, they hope to get a reaction, which is then mocked, spun and used as evidence of leftist censorship.

It is a form of trolling.

The Free Speech Crisis

Trolls have become effective political instruments. The objective of trolling is to incite extreme and emotional reaction out of others for amusement. To do so, trolls are willing to say and argue for things that are intentionally outrageous. It is a nihilistic sport.

Trolling tends to polarize populations. People react to trolling in a number of ways. More often than not, presuming the troll is acting on behalf of an earnest belief system, people respond to them with genuine outrage and disgust, as you might in a dialogue where it is expected both parties involved hold real values.

On the flipside, others will actually gravitate towards the troll. Many align themselves with the nihilistic spirit of trolling for a variety of reasons. Some are emboldened by the confidence with which trolls espouse vitriol. Many find trolls’ refutation of existing social codes refreshing. Others are tricked by the use of trolling social media bots, designed to espouse slightly more radical versions of existing political views, and are manipulated into believing more extreme ideas.

It is easy to see how concerted trolling efforts, on and offline, can have a massive influence on political and cultural thought. The “campus free speech crisis” is one such effort. The aim is a control over the flow of ideas in higher education.

In the fall of 2017 the Board of Regents at the University of Wisconsin adopted a three-strikes policy with regards to free speech that is the strictest of its kind. Any student found to have disrupted the free speech rights of others more than three times can be expelled.

The policy came as a response to student protests at U.C. Berkley and Middlebury (both protests were against Milo Yiannopoulos) out of a concern for the free speech rights of conservatives in American higher education.

Republican-led state legislatures in Arizona, Georgia and North Carolina have implemented similar policies in public and private universities. Bills to regulate free speech on college campuses are being considered in several other legislatures across the country.

These efforts are being funded by wealthy right-wing political interest organizations. The Goldwater Institute is advocating for its own model of free speech conduct on college campuses and pitching it to Republican politicians nationwide. The Alliance Defending Freedom (an organization that successfully defended a Colorado baker’s refusal to make a cake for a gay wedding) sued schools in Georgia, Michigan and other states over campus speech practices.

A website called Campus Reform acts as a broadcasting service to these efforts. It features videos mocking liberal college students in constructed segments. Campus Reform is owned by the Leadership Institute, another leading conservative interest organization.

Government regulation of speech is antithetical to the principles of the First Amendment. The “free speech crisis” is a trolling campaign that’s aim is to garner support for a seizure of control over First Amendment rights in higher education institutes.

It’s an insidious strategy. Being able to legislate what a university or college can or cannot do, say, hire, or sign off on gives an interest group power over the kinds of research that can be conducted. That has a massively constraining effect on the kinds of thought that can be considered legitimate in the public eye. It is an effort to silence free expression.

In response to the data on actual disinvitation incidents and the views of college students with regards to the First Amendment, Collins agreed that the situation has been in many ways, exaggerated. “It could well be true that the media coverage has engendered a certain persecution complex among conservative students, but the incidents that do occur are certainly concerning.”

The numerical rate of such incidents is very low. The data on disinvitations and terminations is not complete. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s Disinvitation Database does not include incidents at religious institutions. There have been many. They targeted the left, were instigated by the right, and were successful.

This trend is existent also in data that is currently collated. It is very often those on the left of the political spectrum who are silenced for their views, not the right. As of 2016, there was a significant uptick in faculty terminations based on left-leaning views, while those on the right plateaued.

The numbers on both sides are relatively low, but the financial backing the “campus free speech crisis” narrative receives from wealthy conservative interest groups, as well as the success these organizations have had in lobbying for legislation that monitors campus speech, should be of concern to anyone who truly believes in protecting free speech from people in positions of power.

Counter Narrative

Every trolling campaign needs attention. It requires reaction to sustain its narrative. Protesting an event that’s designed to attract protest only strengthens that group’s image as provocateurs, and allows them to frame the altercation as an attempt to censor their ideas.

Incendiary speaking events sponsored by conservative interest organizations are designed to further the “campus free speech crisis” narrative. It is, of course, perfectly legal to protest an event (see: the First Amendment) but one should consider how a protest actually helps groups taking part in this trolling campaign to sell their brand. Indifference, too, is an act of free expression, as is going to some other event, making a sandwich, or reading a book outside.

Though individuals involved in such groups may well intend to and believe they are fighting for free speech, given their right to bring whichever speaker they like to campus, groups like YAF are disingenuous in their general messaging. These organizations are not interested in facilitating dialogue, but in dominating it. Their objective is to polarize people from one another, to alienate, escalate and provoke.

The students at Beloit College have far more in common than they do apart. They live and learn together here, as peers, as friends and as students engaged in a shared pursuit of knowledge. Though they come from different places, share different identities and day-to-day realities, they are all people who want to better understand the world, in sharing ideas and in learning from one another. Be secure in this. Keep learning.

Sources: The New York Times, Young Americans for Freedom, Fox News, Niskanen Center, The Conversation, The Pittsburgh Gazette, Vox

One thought on “The reality of the “campus free speech debate””

  1. David Sowl says:

    Otis, your editorial is the most comprehensive and nuanced treatment of this subject that I have read. It refutes the common misconceptions and deliberate canards promoted by right wing media. I only wish you had a larger audience to address; but I’m confident that if you choose to pursue a career in journalism someday, you will.

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