Tell Us: Is Your Speech Policed in Your Dorm?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

On Tuesday, an audience gathered at Yale to hear a debate on the proposition, “Free speech is threatened on campus.” The question pertained to institutions of higher education generally, not just the host university. The outcome: a clear majority agree that free speech is threatened. But that wasn’t yet true when the event began.

An audience poll at the outset found 49 percent of attendees declaring that free speech is threatened on campus while 27 percent disagreed and 24 percent were undecided.

The program featured John McWhorter of Columbia and Wendy Kaminer, a writer, lawyer, and contributor to The Atlantic, arguing that free speech is threatened. The opposing view was argued by Shaun Harper of the UPenn and Jason Stanley of Yale.

After hearing all the arguments the audience voted again. 66 percent agreed that free speech is threatened on campus. 25 percent disagreed. 9 percent were undecided.

Although I watched the debate via a web stream, I want to wait until a video is posted until I write about the substance of the back-and-forth to ensure that my memory is accurate. Meanwhile I’d like to ask readers a question. During the question-and-answer portion of the debate, a college student in the audience noted that, in her capacity as an RA, she is asked to remove signs from the dorm room doors of students and to report speech deemed problematic to her superiors.

If you live in a dorm or serve in a residential life position, is your speech policed? Are you asked to police the speech of others? If so, how? I’d be grateful for any information that you have about residential life at any college in the United States. You can reach me here.

Meanwhile, I submit that the conclusion that the audience reached is striking. In a setting as friendly to academia’s defenders as any––in New Haven, inside a Yale auditorium––49 percent entered with the belief that free speech is threatened on campus, and numerous attendees who entered the event unconvinced that free speech is under threat decided, after hearing the arguments presented, that it is. I’ll have more to say about the “free speech is not under threat” arguments after video is posted.