Evidence That Conservative Students Really Do Self-Censor

Is free speech imperiled on American college campuses?

Counterprotesters waiting for Milo Yiannopoulos at UC Berkeley in 2017
AFP Contributor / Getty

I’ve argued before that campus speech is threatened from a dozen directions, citing scores of incidents that undermine the culture of free expression and dialogue needed to seek truth and learn.

The academic Jeffrey Adam Sachs has staked out a contrasting position at the Niskanen Center. A small number of anecdotes “have been permitted to set the terms of public debate,” he once wrote. He has also argued that “rather than collapsing into chaos, 2018 was a year of relative quiet on campuses. There were fewer deplatformings, fewer fired professors, and less violence compared to 2017. There was also more dialogue, greater respect for faculty free speech rights, and increased tolerance on both the right and the left.”

Sachs and I watched the same controversies unfold on various campuses and drew very different conclusions about their implications for campus life.

Now there’s new evidence in the debate.

Last spring, three professors at the University of North Carolina surveyed undergraduates to get a sense of the campus climate. Rather than focus on discrete controversies, such as the time in 2015 when UNC student protesters seized control of a room where a journalist was speaking, or the time in 2019 when a UNC student assaulted a sign-carrying anti-abortion activist, they sought to understand day-to-day undergraduate experiences. The results of the survey, distilled from more than 1,000 responses to email questionnaires, can’t be applied to every college in America, but the findings do illuminate what’s happening at a highly selective public institution in a swing state, where more than 20,000 undergraduates are enrolled.

The good news: In classes where politics comes up, large majorities of self-identified liberal and conservative students say that instructors encourage participation from both sides and want to learn from different perspectives, suggesting that concerns about faculty-indoctrination efforts are unfounded. Indeed, students reported that they worry less about censure from faculty than from peers.

That brings us to the bad news:

  • While majorities favor more viewpoint diversity and free-speech norms, an intolerant faction of roughly a quarter of students believe it is okay to silence or suppress some widely held views that they deem wrong.
  • Students across political perspectives engage in classroom self-censorship.
  • Students harbor divisive stereotypes about classmates with different beliefs, and a substantial minority are not open to engaging socially with classmates who don’t share their views.
  • Disparaging comments about political conservatives are common.

To measure student tolerance for views with which they disagree, the researchers chose matters of ongoing controversy on campus––the fate of a Confederate statue, affirmative action in admissions, immigration, health care, climate change, and whether Christian bakers should be compelled to make cakes for gay weddings against their will––and presented students with mainstream positions that a liberal or conservative classmate might hold. Respondents were asked to indicate which among those positions they found most objectionable.

Next they were asked: If confronted with that view they identified as most objectionable, how appropriate would it be to take a series of actions, such as asking a tough question, publishing a dissent, or more extreme measures? An alarming 25.5 percent of survey respondents said it would be appropriate to “create an obstruction, such that a campus speaker endorsing this idea could not address an audience.” This authoritarian view was held by about 19 percent of self-identifying liberals, 3 percent of moderates, and 3 percent of conservatives. More than 3 percent of liberals and 1 percent of conservatives thought it would be appropriate to “yell profanity at a student” for endorsing the objectionable idea.

Also troubling were the undergraduates who reported having kept an opinion to themselves in the classroom, even though the opinion was related to the class, because they were worried about the potential consequences of expressing it. Almost 68 percent of conservatives censored themselves in this way, along with roughly 49 percent of moderates and 24 percent of liberals.

Expressing unpopular views “can reveal critical blind spots in prevailing thought patterns,” the authors of the report note, and even when a view is wrong, its refutation allows both parties “to better apprehend why the correct view must be true.” But “a substantial proportion of respondents fear social sanction, or even outright grading penalties, for sharing their views.” What’s more, almost a quarter of conservative students reported being more than slightly concerned that peers would file a complaint against them for speech related to a class they are in together.

The report provides strong confirmation that conservatives face a hostile campus.

Among students who self-identify as liberals, some 10 percent said they hear “disrespectful, inappropriate, or offensive comments” about foreign students at least several times a semester, 14 percent said they hear disparaging comments about Muslims, 20 percent said they hear such comments about African Americans, 20 percent said they hear such comments about Christians, 21 percent said they hear such comments about LGBTQ individuals, and 57 percent said they hear such comments about conservatives. Among moderates, 68 percent said that they hear “disrespectful, inappropriate, or offensive comments” about conservatives at least several times a semester.

Out conservatives may face social isolation. Roughly 92 percent of conservatives said they would be friends with a liberal, and just 3 percent said that they would not have a liberal friend. Among liberals, however, almost a quarter said they would not have a conservative friend. Would UNC be a better place without conservatives? About 22 percent of liberals said yes. Would it be a better place without liberals? Almost 15 percent of conservatives thought so.

“Self-identified conservative students do in fact face distinct challenges related to viewpoint expression at UNC,” the authors conclude. They urge “a conversation about how the campus can become more accepting of conservative students as well as more willing to hear and engage with conservative ideas.” After all, they ask, “who would dispute that universities should be places where each idea is considered on its own terms, and not prejudged? Where sincerely held conclusions can be offered up for vigorous and civil contestation? Where students are assumed to be arguing in good faith and where they feel valued and respected, even should they turn out to be wrong?”

As important, the authors correctly emphasize that “the wrong way to interpret our report would be to see it as pitting liberals against conservatives,” not only because many liberals and moderates harbor similar anxieties about sharing earnest views, but also because even though “political hostility emerges disproportionately from the political left at UNC,” that hostility comes from a minority, not a majority, of liberals. Tolerant students belong to a cross-ideological majority. While divided in their politics, both are ill-served by the minority faction of intolerant censors.

Self-censorship is among several significant reasons to believe that free speech remains under threat on American campuses, harming undergraduate education. I try to avoid talk of “crisis,” because I believe that free speech is perpetually threatened and requires constant vigilance to sustain. But however we label the status quo, America’s professors ought to be aware of these problems.

The UNC study’s authors warn that well-intentioned instructors:

could easily fail to perceive important free-expression issues that might not be immediately evident in their courses. Student concerns about expressing political views are quite prevalent, and a common coping mechanism is to withdraw and self-censor. Thus, a classroom silence that an instructor might perceive as tacit agreement (or perhaps lackadaisical indifference) might, at least for some students, actually come from apprehension about the consequences of expressing specific viewpoints.

Thus they counsel that UNC instructors should be more intentional and explicit about their approach to free expression, so that students unaware of faculty support for it are better informed. Perhaps UNC is somehow anomalous. But its size, its student profile, and my years of reporting on different campuses lead me to suspect that it is somewhat representative of the selective colleges whose students wield disproportionate influence across society after graduation.

Free-speech advocates have had success in recent years in making the case for free-speech norms, reforming speech codes, protecting events, and reducing the number of disinvited speakers. More studies can help these advocates identify which campuses are in particular need of their attention, and assist them in empowering tolerant students in their conflicts with intolerant classmates.