All US students are afraid to speak – and we should be worried

A large survey of students suggests that even Democrats are afraid to air their views on certain subjects. This isn’t healthy, says Samuel Abrams

September 19, 2022
A man with his hands over his mouth, symbolising self-censorship
Source: iStock

That free speech and open expression are under real threat in US higher education is not a novel claim. But it has generally been considered to be an issue that only impacts students and academics on the political right. Vastly outnumbered by those on the left and cowed by the progressive zeitgeist that is omnipresent on college campuses today, Republicans have often been shown to be wary of expressing their true views on a range of issues for fear of being “cancelled” by their peers.

But the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (Fire) has just released a study which suggests that students and academics on the left are also deeply afraid of suffering the same fate.

Fire’s 2022-23 College Free Speech Rankings samples the views of almost 45,000 currently enrolled students at more than 200 American colleges and universities, the largest study of its kind to date. Like earlier iterations, it shows that conservatives are far more likely to self-censor than their liberal counterparts. For instance, when presented with the question of how often students have felt that they could not express their opinions on a subject because of how students, a professor or the administration would respond, 44 per cent of Democrats report self-censoring. This figure is notably lower than the 58 per cent of independents and 73 per cent of Republicans who do so.

However, the 2022/23 survey includes a number of new questions that offer a powerful new twist on the issue. For instance, while 53 per cent of independents and 66 per cent of Republicans feel some or more significant pressure to avoid certain topics, 43 per cent of Democratic students do so, too.

The most revealing finding emerges in response to a question about how worried students are about damaging their reputations because of a misunderstanding about something they have said or done. A significant majority of students – 63 per cent – are worried to some degree. And despite a generally liberal campus environment, fostered by progressive and woke administrators and liberal faculty who often engage in activist scholarship, there is almost no difference between how worried Democratic and Republican students are.

The 62 per cent of strong and weak Democratic Party-supporting students who report being worried about reputational damage is barely lower than the 64 per cent of those who are independents and leaners towards one party or another. For strong and weak Republicans, who already regularly self-censor at much higher rates than their Democratic counterparts, 63 per cent are worried about the social and personal consequences of their expression.

This is a remarkably unhealthy state of affairs in an educational environment that is supposed to be open, authentic and liberating. It should be no wonder that American students are anxious and that depression and other mental health issues are so prominent on campuses today.

It does not have to be like this. Faculty and administrators can work to foster an environment that promotes real viewpoint diversity by modelling respectful disagreement. They can demonstrate that it is possible for groups and individuals to hold principled and oppositional views while still caring about each other.

For instance, Purdue University president Mitch Daniels dramatically improved his own school’s Fire free speech ranking by taking a stand in support of discourse and diversity. He recently stated that “you have to be a real, as they say, denialist to argue that there's not gross [political] imbalance in the composition of faculties... But the answer is not to silence those who are saying things you think are wrong. It's to balance the argument.” Purdue’s leadership, student organisations and administrators mobilised and created an environment to protect and encourage expression, recognising that “without a vibrant commitment to free and open inquiry, a university ceases to be a university”.

If school leadership opts out of such actions, faculty can still be instrumental. In my own teaching, I always make a point of helping students sort out opinion from fact and insist that they can disagree respectfully about ideas and views but they cannot attack, bully or try to silence dissent.

Taking this position often emboldens not only my students but also others from around the school. They regularly come to me and my classes because they want to ask questions, make mistakes and think freely, and I have happily become a resource for them. As one Purdue student commented: “Once you start advocating for free speech or against speech codes, against trigger warnings…it’s very encouraging how many people agree…There are lots more supporters out there, so long as someone takes the first step.”

Nor am I the only one prepared to take that step. Many other faculty members are doing the same thing on their respective campuses – despite the scorn of particular groups and interests.

All students are being deprived of the chance to develop the skills needed to navigate a complex world of difference, trade-offs and compromise, the foundation for a successful polity. Those who care about the American educational system and the democratic health of the nation should be worried. They should clamour for a genuine educational experience, one that is joyous and, at times, uncomfortable, filled with ample debate and discourse.

Some schools and faculty have begun to push back. But the Fire data reveal that there is a lot more work to be done.

Samuel J. Abrams is a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is on the board of directors of Fire.

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Reader's comments (4)

For a more balanced and honest look at this issue - from someone who does not hold positions at both AEI and FIRE - the recent THE article by Paul Basken is useful: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/us-students-becoming-more-tolerant-free-speech. At a time when right-wing administrations are passing laws to strangle free speech across the US, it's quite predictable that right-wing commentators try to divert attention by manufacturing a 'crisis' about free speech, which boils down to the fact that students, like the rest of us, sometimes feel anxious about offending others.
FIRE is a right-wing, free speech for only some, partisan group. Nothing they claim can be taken on its ground. Furthermore, nothing in this piece of writing is novel. And with others, a real problem is enormously exaggerated. What has happened to basic fact-checking in the 21st century? Rather than Basken, turn to ACLU, AAUP, PEN America, and other independent sources. Please.
Running the risk of appearing to pile on, let me add that the author's interpretation of the data and the headline are perhaps a bit off the mark. Being worried "about damaging their reputations because of a misunderstanding about something they have said or done" is not the same thing as being afraid to speak. Maybe this majority (63%) responding to the question asked as they did just means that students are learning that words and actions have consequences. That is, they are learning about accountability as young adults should, and having frank conversations can be tough. Also, it is rather risible to see the author say, "I always make a point of helping students sort out opinion from fact" after he states that liberal campus environments are "fostered by progressive and woke administrators and liberal faculty" as fact while citing his own opinion piece in Newsweek magazine as evidence. Finally, the use of "woke"as a descriptor is also rather lazy academically and a bit of dog whistle politically. The issue of free speech on campuses is truly important, and I hope we can have serious conversations about it without relying political tropes and tendentious "arguments."
Observing from afar it does seem the US 'left' are fractioning and former allies are becoming enemies, such is the destructive divisive nature of intersectional identity politics.

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