A Deeper Look At Free Speech On College Campuses

Credit: FUKT / Flickr

By Michael Covin

There are several stories that dissect students and college campuses when it comes to free speech. There are some speakers that can cause push back from students. There are professors and conversations in classrooms that draw mixed reactions. There are rallies and movements led by students either involving a national or local issue or campus related matter.

Depending on your political outlook, one might view these measures as just and something to highlight in terms of student activism. Or one might view certain actions as a way to silent those you disagree with. It is a divide among several other issues that cause for debates between those on both sides of the political aisle.

There is a conversation from the conservative standpoint of only conservative speakers being attacked by students and their free speech being silenced among what some view as over sensitive groups of students.

Those same individuals decry the rise of liberal propaganda on college campuses and polls show a disdain for higher education from this group. Like any issue, there is more than meets the eye in this conversation.

Recently, Jeffrey Sachs, a SSHRC Postdoctoral fellow at the School for International Studies at Simon Fraser University, looked to open up this topic and conversation to shed some light on where young people stand and how they compare to older generations.

In the 1950s and 1960s, college students were pushed back against for being part of the Civil Rights Movement or rebelling against the Vietnam War. There is a good chance that many of those young people are parents or grandparents for many of today’s college students who are waging their own movements and pushing back against wars.

As Sachs tweeted, “For us olds, there are few things more pleasurable in life than shitting on the young — especially on college students, with their hacky sack and their animal houses. What, just because they haven’t ruined their lives yet they think they are better than us?”

That statement would lay the foundation for a journey through analyzing myths that have swirled about college students and free speech.

The first myth addressed: Young people in general (and students in particular) don’t support free speech. To go about breaking down this myth and this overall conversation, GSS data on where individuals stand on what should be allowed and not allowed serves as the key area to look at.

As one goes through the free speech section and looks over speech involving race, gender, religion, or other areas, young people between 18-34 years old are the most tolerant of potentially offensive speech while older Americans are less likely to be as tolerant. The total tells one story with the data but when you use the age filter you can gain a better idea of where four age brackets stand on their tolerance and outlook.

In some ways, today’s 18-34-year-olds are more tolerant than those in the same age bracket in the past. So, in a way, the children or grandchildren of previous generations have evolved in their thinking and their tolerance when looking at this particular area.

The only area that young people are less tolerant than older generations is when it comes to free speech and racism. However, that difference is rather small compared to the national average and the other age groups and thus not a crisis that some might want people to believe.

Sachs also highlighted work done by Justin Murphy that further enhances breaking down this myth in terms of free speech being an issue among young people as national averages across all area groups show similar viewpoints on different types of speakers and free speech with racists being the group that most don’t support being able to speak on college campuses or public venues.

That information is something worth reflecting on when one thinks about incidents in Charlottesville, Virginia last summer and some greater conversations that take place nationally on race in this country.

One caveat with this information and looking at breaking down this myth is the fact that data polls all those in an age range. It doesn’t take into consideration if they are a college student or were a college student.

Further highlighting that young people are more tolerant than some have expressed is a study done by the Knight Foundation and Newseum Institute. One of the key findings in the study is that college students are more likely to support open environments and free speech than the national average. When one digs a little deeper, you can see that college students across political leanings do not support restricting the expression of political views that are upsetting or offensive to others.

Additionally, a majority of college students again across political leanings do support restrict on offensive language or slurs as well as offensive costumes that embrace stereotypes of ethnic groups.

Once again, when it comes to race, young people are more likely to favor restrictions to free speech and again a viewpoint not far off from where the national averages when it comes to race related restrictions on free speech. Something that speaks more to society evolving than a generation of young people devolving.

The second myth Sachs addressed is that universities make students less tolerant of offensive speech. There are conversations of safe zones and bubbles and indoctrination of students by professors. The findings from his study shows the opposite is true as going to universities allow for tolerance to grow when it comes to offensive or opposing viewpoints.

A recent article in The Conversation highlights the best way to break down this myth analyzing students’ views after a year in college. Students are shown expressing a better attitude towards both liberals and conservatives and their viewpoints.

Roughly 50 percent are more tolerant towards both contrasting ideologies with slightly more people being more tolerant of conservative viewpoints. About 1 in 5 students expressed no change in outlook so while they might not have expanded their outlook on other points of view, they didn’t become worse as the myth often speaks to.

For a wider picture of this topic, a UCLA study shows that students are less likely to favor restrictions on free speech after leaving college compared to when they first entered.

The third and final myth looked at is: students may tell a pollster that they favor free speech but then display a different attitude through their actions.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) tracks disinvitations on college campuses and showed there were only 35 attempts out of 4,700 universities to block a speaker from coming to a campus. And most of those 35 attempts were not successful.

Those attempts that were successful were more likely to come from right leaning students; something that goes against a popular narrative with college students and all the attempts to block speakers coming from left leaning students.

Another of FIRE’s findings shows that universities have also been reversing restrictions that prevent free speech making universities more open for free speech.

As Sachs reflected on these myths and the findings, he tweeted: “So, quick summary: There is no campus free speech crisis, the kids are all right, those that say otherwise have lost all perspective, and the real crisis may be elsewhere.”

That elsewhere mentioned could be many places including the workplace. Often, employers put more restrictions on employees than a university might put on their students. Some of the views that adults craft about college students could come from their own lack of ability for free speech and other things in their workplace. That dynamic could open up a whole other conversation.

Conversations about college students and campuses and free speech are important. Taking into consideration the myths and the reality are equally important to continue to move forward and have those important conversations.

About Michael Covin 7 Articles
Michael Covin is a graduate of Rutgers University with degrees in political science and history. He has worked on campaigns on multiple levels in multiple states as well as spent time working with a government relations firm in Washington DC, a state legislator in New Jersey, and has written about politics for several years in New Jersey.