If I told you that that 35% of Americans strongly agreed that it was safe to hold unpopular views in this country, while 65% didn’t know or thought otherwise, how would that make you feel about the culture of freedom in the United States? At first that seems pretty good, right? What if I then told you that an additional 45% somewhat agreed that it’s safe to hold unpopular views? That’s 80% of people who more or less agree that it’s safe to hold unpopular views in this country. That doesn’t sound too bad, right?
That is, until you realize that this means that 62 million of this nation’s 310 million people feel that it’s unsafe to hold unpopular views. That’s equivalent to the entire population of the United Kingdom. It’s not looking so good now, is it?
That’s certainly not the perspective that the headline writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education took. An article on a survey of college students that came up with these very percentages was headlined this way: "Most Students Say It’s Safe to Hold Unpopular Views on Their Campuses." The article, by Paige Chapman, is a pretty good summary of what’s in the report, which was recently released by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (you can download the PDF here.)
The headline, however, puts a Panglossian spin on what is actually bad news. Colleges and universities are supposed to act as the ultimate "free speech zone" for our society – a marketplace of ideas where people can speak and debate freely. But apparently 20% of students don’t even believe it’s safe simply to hold unpopular opinions on campus. This is no reason to celebrate; as Chapman points out in her article, "[t]he report states ‘there is a troubling gap on campuses between aspiration and reality,’ and recommends that campus professionals continually and clearly stress the importance of engaging differing opinions."
The report itself is even harsher than that. In fact, recognizing the fact that only 80% of students think it’s safe to hold unpopular opinions on campus, it headlines its "Finding 3" (page 7 of the PDF) as "Relatively few respondents feel it is safe to hold unpopular opinions on campus." (Emphasis ours.) Worse yet, it points out that "[t]wice the number of students (35.6 percent) as campus professionals (18.8 percent) strongly agreed that it is safe to hold unpopular positions on campus." That ominously suggests that those who are in a position to know more about the campus feel less safe holding unpopular opinions.
There is undoubtedly more to be mined from this report. For example, we have been unable to find online the raw data from the survey; if we can get access to that, we may find out even further disturbing facts (for instance, the report nowhere says how many students strongly disagree that holding unpopular opinions is safe as opposed to those who only somewhat disagree). In the meantime, though, this report only demonstrates how far colleges have to go when it comes to fulfilling their intended purposes.