Are college campuses hotbeds of anti-free speech sentiment? Some commentators claim that the problem is overstated, and that poll numbers show that college students in general are highly supportive of free speech.
Not so, Cathy Young argues at USA Today: “[T]here is plenty of evidence that the problem of left-wing intolerance in the universities is real and damaging.”
Young, an editor at Reason, cites the recent fracas at Lewis & Clark Law School, at which scholar Christina Hoff Sommers was accused of being a “fascist.” Her talk at that school was ambushed and disrupted by protesters chanting and singing.
“Skeptical progressives,” Young writes, “argue that, despite a few highly publicized conflicts, actual data show free expression on college campuses is alive and well — and supported by most students, especially political liberals.”
But further examination of the data reveal some troubling trends in the support for free speech, Young writes. For one, respondents to a recent General Social Survey indicated “declining support for free speech rights for an avowed racist, especially among those under 35.”
In addition, Young writes, “Two other recent surveys related to campus speech show disturbingly high approval for speech suppression, even by the state. In a 2017 survey by the Cato Institute and the YouGov polling firm, about half of current college students — compared to 40% of all Americans — favored government prohibition of hate speech.”
College students, Young writes, are increasingly given to censorious attitudes:
Among all respondents with college experience, majorities of Democrats believed that speakers expressing offensive or controversial views — for instance, that police are justified in stopping black people more frequently, or that transgender people have a mental disorder — should not be allowed to give a talk on their campus even if invited. Sizable minorities of Republicans agreed.
Meanwhile, a just-released Gallup/Knight Foundation poll of current college students finds that nearly 30% — up from 22% in 2016 — prefer a “positive” campus environment with speech prohibitions to an “open” one where offensive speech is allowed. While openness still wins, the trend is alarming. What’s more, over half of students say that inclusiveness and diversity should take priority over free speech rights. And more than a third, including half of the self-identified Democrats, believe it is at least sometimes acceptable to shout down campus speakers.
How do these attitudes translate into real life? McGill University political scientist Jeffrey Sachs has pointed out, in a Twitter thread questioning a free-speech crisis on campus, that disinvitations of college speakers are fairly rare. But disinvitation is just one kind of illiberal reaction; the aggressive disruption experienced by Sommers is another. And many incidents of leftist intolerance in the past few years have been directed not at outside speakers but at faculty members, staff, or students. Thus, Erika Christakis, formerly a Yale lecturer on early childhood education, resigned in 2015 after angry protests sparked by her defense of Halloween costumes that borrow from other cultures.
“One may argue that right-wing authoritarianism is the bigger threat in America today,” Young writes. “But attacks on unpopular speech in the universities can only make that threat worse, by undermining cultural support for freedom of speech and setting a precedent for speech suppression.”