Support for Shouting Down Speakers on Campus Spikes after Political Chaos of 2020

A majority of college students support shouting down speakers with whom they don’t agree, according to a new survey from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

Sixty-six percent of students said they supported speaker shout downs, an increase of 4 percentage points over last year, the study found. Meanwhile, 23 percent said they support going so far as to use violence to stop a speaker, an increase of 5 percentage points from last year.

Wellesley College and Barnard College, both of which are elite women’s colleges, had the highest number of students supporting the use of violence, at 45 percent and 43 percent respectively.

Sean Stevens, a senior research fellow in polling and analytics for FIRE told National Review in a recent interview that the shift is likely reflective of the national political climate of the last year.

The country was rocked by months of rioting and counter-protests beginning in summer 2020 with the murder of George Floyd. Protests for various causes persisted through the general election in November, culminating in the deadly January 6 Capitol riot when a mob of former President Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol.

Stevens noted that the FIRE study results echoed findings from similar studies by the American National Election Studies and other outlets that have asked Americans about the acceptability of violence and have seen upticks in their data as well.

The results come as part of FIRE’s 2021 college free speech rankings. FIRE, a non-partisan, non-profit group that focuses on protecting free speech rights on U.S. college campuses, worked alongside College Pulse and RealClearEducation to survey over 37,000 students at 159 of the country’s largest and most prestigious campuses.

FIRE then compiled a list of free speech rankings assessing a school’s free speech climate based on seven main components: openness to discussion of controversial topics, tolerance for liberal speakers, tolerance for conservative speakers, administrative support for free speech, comfort expressing ideas publicly, whether students support disruptive conduct during campus speeches, and FIRE’s speech code rating.

The top five colleges for free speech, according to the rankings, included Claremont McKenna College, University of Chicago, University of New Hampshire, Emory University and Florida State University. The worst five colleges were Boston College, Wake Forest University, Louisiana State University, Marquette University and DePauw University, which ranked last.

Public schools largely performed better than private schools, accounting for just five of the bottom 30 schools on the list.

Stevens noted that even for schools that performed well “there still is evidence that there’s a decent amount of work to do.”

He pointed to high rates of self-censorship, particularly among those who are outside of the political majority; the survey found that more than 80 percent of college students report self-censoring their viewpoints at school at least some of the time. Twenty-one percent said they censor themselves often.

He added that most students are “very tolerant of speakers they politically agree with” and are “intolerant of ones they politically disagree with, with almost equal potency.”

Students surveyed showed “much greater” intolerance for campus speakers with conservative positions.

Students, even at some of the more tolerant schools, reported being reticent to express their ideas in the classroom and on social media or to challenge a professor. Racial inequality, abortion, and gun control were cited as the most difficult subjects to discuss.

Stevens said the survey is just the latest in a “long line of data points that have come out over the past six to seven years indicating that all is not well” in regards to free speech on campus and that “it’s not a manufactured crisis or problem.”

In open-ended responses, students often described how their campuses are echo chambers and how voices in the political majority dominate the conversation and become hostile with each other.

“I avoid expressing more conservative or even moderate views on social media since many students at this school are very liberal and I am afraid of being ‘cancelled,’” one Amherst College student told pollsters.

The results come amid a battle over diversity equity and inclusion initiatives and critical race theory that has played out in secondary schools and colleges nationwide, sparking concerns about freedom of thought and expression on campus.

Stevens pointed to a recent study published by the American Sociological Association that found that higher education liberalizes moral concerns for most students and promotes moral absolutism rather than relativism. While the study analyzed four waves of data from the National Study of Youth and Religion, the most recent of which was taken in 2013, Stevens hypothesized that the effects found then “are probably stronger today.”

He said the results may support the argument that CRT and DEI efforts allow students to easily start thinking that what they’re learning is the truth, though it’s simply one perspective of the world because the efforts include teaching a black-and-white view of the world without challenges to that perspective.

“I think there’s starting to be evidence that some of those ideas could have that effect,” he said, adding that from a free speech perspective he does not believe the solution is to ban their teaching, but to present viable alternative perspectives.

He added that, in order to improve their rankings, schools should put out clear messaging from college presidents and other administration defending freedom of speech and academic freedom when incidents occur in which students, faculty, or outside agitators call for a professor to be sanctioned or fired.

“I don’t think it’s enough to just say, ‘No comments,’ and ignore the demands that are being made by the outrage mobs,” he said. “I think they actually actively should defend their professors’ right to expression and academic freedom.”

Administrators should also consider removing vague or punitive speech policies to better their ranking, he said, while professors should also make an effort to model constructive disagreement in the classroom.

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