A new poll finds that Americans hold deeply conflicting views about free speech on campus — wanting colleges and universities to uphold free speech principles while supporting restrictions of student and faculty expression.
First, the good news. Almost three-quarters of Americans, 73%, oppose college and university officials restricting which books students are assigned to read for class. A similar percentage, 71%, oppose university officials restricting films or music students are assigned to watch or listen to for class. About two-thirds of Americans (68%) also oppose state government restrictions on what professors can teach at state universities.
In other words, most Americans oppose allowing college or university officials or state actors to restrict the material professors can assign in class. This is encouraging news.
Yet, at the same time, a large portion of Americans support other speech restrictions on faculty, in particular those that would restrict faculty’s ability to express their views on religion and politics. More than two-thirds of Americans, 69%, think that professors should not be allowed to promote the views of a specific religion or a specific political group on a college or university campus. This percentage is considerably higher than that of Americans who said that student speech in these domains should be restricted.
A clear majority of Americans want professors’ religious and political speech curtailed on campus.
Another 59% said that professors should not be allowed to invite academic speakers accused of using offensive speech to campus, and 50% said that faculty should not be allowed to teach a curriculum that includes polarizing ideas. What’s more, 38% of Americans think that a professor should not be allowed to conduct a scientific study on a topic some students find offensive.
These findings are troubling, to say the least.
A clear majority of Americans want professors’ religious and political speech curtailed on campus. A majority of Americans also want to restrict faculty speech that is “offensive” or “polarizing,” which includes preventing faculty from conducting research that some students find offensive. The problem with this is that what is “offensive” or “polarizing” is in the eye of the beholder: A speaker like Ben Shapiro or Matt Walsh might offend liberals, while a speaker like Angela Davis or Bill Ayers might offend conservatives.
Do we really want to place restrictions on what coursework faculty can assign in the classroom, who they can invite to their class, or on what they choose to research because someone, somewhere considers something they previously did offensive? How many faculty would have to pack up their offices and leave their positions under such conditions?
Furthermore, it is not clear who Americans would like to enforce these restrictions on faculty. Recall that a majority said that they oppose allowing college or university officials or state actors to restrict what professors can assign in the classroom. Does this mean that most Americans want students and faculty to police expression in the classroom?
That sounds like a recipe for mob rule.
Students entering college this fall can expect a culture of conformity and censorship according to a new FIRE survey of more than 55,000 students across the country shows that most attend colleges that don’t value free expression.
FIRE has documented how attempts to sanction scholars for their expression have increased over the past decade and how sanction attempts initiated by undergraduate students, graduate students, and other scholars have also increased during that time period. Without clear policies defending speech rights — policies most colleges and universities lack — allowing students and faculty to decide what is offensive, polarizing, or hateful may lead to even more sanctioning attempts in the coming years.
Unfortunately, even colleges and universities that maintain clear policies which defend the speech rights of students and faculty do not always abide by these policies during a controversy. This year’s College Free Speech Rankings feature multiple “green light” schools — which maintain strong written policies supporting free speech — that dropped in the rankings because when speech controversies arose, they trampled student and faculty expression.
These findings should worry anyone concerned about the state of free expression at American colleges and universities. They reflect a citizenry that seems to want to have it both ways when it comes to free speech on campus. Although a clear majority of Americans say they do not want state officials or college and university administrators regulating faculty classroom speech, majorities also favor someone regulating it, providing a considerable amount of fuel for elected officials to pursue unconstitutional restrictions on academic freedom.
FIRE will continue to oppose such legislation and defend the academic freedom of students and faculty on campus.