Campus censorship, chilled speech and ‘Unlearning Liberty’

November 14, 2012

Looking for a challenging debate that includes an abundance of diverse opinions? If so, going to college isn’t your best bet. On today’s college and university campuses, students are repeatedly being punished for expressing the “wrong” opinion on just about any controversial topic.

At the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), we’ve won battle after battle against schools that restrict student speech, yet campus censorship continues to flourish. Our 2012 Spotlight on Speech Codes report found that 65% of the 392 top colleges we examined maintained unconstitutional speech codes and other restrictions on student expression.

Perhaps college administrators simply don’t have time to read through the many cases FIRE has won or the many rulings the Supreme Court has issued upholding free speech. Or perhaps they don’t understand the crippling effect that silencing student speech has on a school’s ability to produce independent thinkers. So we put together a video that quite literally illustrates — complete with easy-to-follow cartoons — the problems with censorship on campus.

My new bookUnlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate (all royalties go to FIRE), further explores the consequences of preventing students from engaging in open debate and discussion. In it, I explain how colleges that censor speech encourage groupthink and produce students who believe that there are “right” and “wrong” opinions on hot-button issues — and that it is correct to discipline those who hold the “wrong” opinions.

This problem of chilled speech on campus is more than speculation. In a 2010 study of over 24,000 college students, the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that only 30.3% of college seniors strongly agreed that it was “safe to hold unpopular positions on campus.” When these seniors graduate and enter the larger society, they bring with them the understanding that questioning prevailing beliefs is neither safe nor wise. Even worse, only 16.7% of professors and 18.8% of campus professionals (a category that includes professors as well as administrators) strongly agreed that their campuses were safe for unpopular views.

When you look back on human progress, the presence of skeptical, questioning minds can be seen at virtually every turn. Shouldn’t colleges be in the business of producing minds like these? Or have our educators decided to abandon the pursuit of progress in favor of the pursuit of conformity?