US students ‘becoming more tolerant’ of free speech

Survey in annual report by advocacy group Fire shows slightly less support on campuses for shouting down or using violence to deter speakers

September 7, 2022
Source: Will Simpson Photography
Adriana Novoa, an associate professor of history at the University of South Florida, and her student, Sam Rechek, are aided by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression in a lawsuit against their state's Stop WOKE Act.

US university students appear to be growing somewhat more tolerant of controversial speakers on their campuses, according to an annual free speech survey.

Students have become slightly less supportive of shouting or violence to deter public speakers, and slightly more willing to self-censor their own comments, the advocacy group known as Fire said in its annual College Free Speech Rankings.

Still, the group said, the overall numbers remain high. Its online survey of nearly 45,000 students nationwide found 62 per cent endorse the idea of shouting down a speaker, and 20 per cent agree with using violent tactics. Those numbers were down from 66 per cent and 23 per cent the previous year.

Twenty-two per cent of the students report that they often self-censor themselves, a slight gain from 21 per cent in last year’s report.

“These findings about intolerant and disruptive conduct, self-censorship, and a pervasive national climate of worry and discomfort on American college campuses should concern anyone who supports a vision of higher education as a free marketplace of ideas,” the group said.

The suggestion of US colleges and universities as hostile to free speech has been actively promoted by conservative activists in recent years, and Fire – while billing itself as non-partisan – has largely amplified that perspective.

Fire hired the survey company College Pulse to conduct its student survey, and said that it found 193 of the 208 participating institutions “had a predominantly liberal student body”. It labelled Smith College, with a liberal-to-conservative student ratio of 66-1, “extremely unbalanced”.

Yet just ahead of its report, Fire announced that it was helping a professor and a student group at the University of South Florida bring a lawsuit challenging provisions of their state’s new “Stop Woke Act” as it applies to higher education.

The law, pushed by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis – a leading contender for the 2024 US presidential race – restricts race-based discussions in educational and business settings, with provisions that include encouraging people to report anyone who publicly advances controversial views on equity.

Outside the spotlight Mr DeSantis attracts, similar laws have been enacted in at least a dozen US states and attempted in most others.

Beyond such external partisan efforts, the idea of a crisis in free speech intrinsic to college campuses is mostly dismissed by academic experts as a concern manufactured on the political right. And Fire, in its new report, acknowledged finding only 19 cases between 2019 and 2022 where a speaker was successfully disinvited from appearing on a college campus.

Just ahead of the report, two leading US universities asserted their own rights to decide free speech questions in a couple of high-profile cases.

In one, a federal judge upheld the right of Yale University to fire Bandy Lee, an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry who led some of her professional colleagues nationwide in publicly questioning the mental state of Donald Trump and exploring what that suggested about the risks he posed while serving as US president. Dr Lee complained of retaliation for that activism, but the judge agreed that Yale had a fundamental right to act because she was teaching on an unpaid basis with a contract subject to annual renewal.

In the other, Princeton University rejected a research misconduct complaint against Sam Wang, a professor of neuroscience who played a key role in helping the state of New Jersey redraw the boundaries of its congressional districts. Professor Wang serves as director of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, and some of the project’s own staff members accused him of manipulating data in ways that aided Democrats.

Also in advance of Fire’s report, the group, founded in 1999, announced it was changing its underlying name from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education to the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, reflecting an ambition to expand its work into off-campus advocacy.

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