New Gallup study finds most college students say their campus environment chills speech

Higher education plays a critical role in helping people discover more about themselves and the world around them. But new research finds that a majority of U.S. college students feel that their campus environment is not always conducive to engaging with ideas and with each other.

Gallup released its latest report — from research conducted in late 2019 in partnership with the Knight Foundation, Stanton Foundation, and Charles Koch Foundation — exploring free speech on American college campuses. Among the report’s many findings, the authors discovered that 63 percent of students feel that the climate on their campus deters students from expressing themselves openly, up from 54 percent in 2016.

“The ability to ask questions — whether in a classroom, in a conversation, or in research — is an essential part of education. Opportunities to grow come from robust dialogue and a free exchange of ideas,” said Charles Koch Institute Director of Free Expression Sarah Ruger. “While Gallup’s new findings suggest campuses are not immune to broader cancel culture, higher education is also uniquely positioned to lead the way toward openness.”

The academy is an institution where students can experience firsthand the complementary principles of free speech, diversity, and inclusion. The reinforcing relationship among those isn’t necessarily self-evident, a topic PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel explores in a commentary on the findings:

The juxtaposition revealed in the survey results between students who believe in the First Amendment, but also harbor serious concerns about the damaging impact of speech, reflects a larger tension manifest in society. As the United States comes to grips with the pernicious and entrenched legacies of racial and gender inequality, citizens have become more acutely aware of the potential for certain types of speech, including slurs, to inflict lasting harm both on targeted individuals and on the larger climate for inclusion and equality. For many, recognizing those harms leads to a question about whether it would not make sense to curtail speech rights – for example through a campus ban on racist speech or stereotyped costumes – in the name of protecting the vulnerable from hurt and discomfort.

In order to build on the survey’s positive findings with respect to overall belief in free speech, it is vital to confront students’ reservations about the harmful impact of speech and to explain how free speech and values of diversity, equity and inclusion can be reconciled.

Foundation for Individual Rights in Education Executive Director Robert Shibley expands on a similar point in another post:

It’s natural to have doubts about the utility of offensive speech. Indeed, to restrict speech widely considered offensive is the norm in human history. Blasphemy laws protecting sacred gods and ideals date to ancient times and are still in place in many nations today. Many Western democracies also restrict some speech that offends, or that they believe impairs the dignity of individuals or groups, though hardly on the scale of what was once the norm.

Only the most stubborn ideologue, though, would argue that the enormous increase in prosperity and progress that has taken place since the Enlightenment-era expansion of human rights and freedom is just some kind of coincidence. As Frederick Douglass famously observed, in condemning the antebellum South’s restrictions on speech about slavery, the right to speak is “the dread of tyrants. It is the right which they first of all strike down.” Censorship and repression have massive costs.

Other higher education stakeholders will share their views on the Gallup findings as well as the broader free expression implications of societal changes during today’s The State of Freedom of Expression in the U.S. webinar. Register here.

Learn more about the Charles Koch Foundation’s support of free expression, open inquiry, and academic freedom.

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