Survey of college Greek life reveals mixed attitudes about freedom of speech and freedom of association

April 22, 2021

This week, Real Clear Education released survey data that explores student attitudes towards free speech and also an understudied area of campus civil liberties: What current members of voluntary student association groups — namely fraternities and sororities — think about their rights to freedom of association on campus. The survey sampled almost 5,000 students from more than 500 colleges and universities across 36 of the 50 states. 

Organizational freedoms

A large majority of fraternity and sorority members (84%) reported that “all students on [my] campus have access to student groups and organizations that reflect their beliefs, identities, and interests.” Yet, at the same time only 29% believe that “all student groups and organizations on [their] campus are treated equally by the administration.” A majority (58%) do not believe that student organizations are treated equally, while 13% say that all organizations are treated equally. The remaining percentage of students say they are “not sure.” Over three in four students surveyed (76%) reported that sororities are viewed favorably on campus, compared to the 57% of students who said this about fraternities. In a similar vein, a considerably larger percentage of sorority members (76%) compared to fraternity members (57%) said that their “fraternity or sorority is treated fairly by campus administrators.” 

It is concerning that a notable portion of students surveyed were not aware of their freedom of association rights on campus. Forty-six percent of students surveyed said they were “not sure” if “student organizations on [their] campus have the right to consider sex or gender identity in their membership criteria” and 52% said they were “not sure” if their “campus [applies] special regulations or restrictions to single-sex organizations, such as fraternities or sororities, that are not applied to other student organizations.” Additionally, a notable percentage of students surveyed are concerned about the future of fraternities and sororities on campus. Almost half of students surveyed (45%) “strongly” or “somewhat” disagreed that “there is no pressure on my campus for fraternities and sororities to be kicked off campus.” 

Furthermore, when asked “[on] your campus, if one member of a student organization is accused of misconduct or something illegal, how often is the entire student organization punished, suspended, or banned,” almost 1 in 3 students said this happened very often (28%), and 36% said it happens “sometimes.” Less than 20% said it “rarely” (16%) or “never” (3%) happens. Fraternity members were most likely to report this with 36% saying it happens “very often” compared to 22% among sorority members. These concerns about freedom of association on campus are sensible, given that a number of  campuses have attempted to restrict the right that fraternities and sororities have to freedom of association, even employing guilt by association to address fraternity and sorority misconduct.

Personal freedoms

The Real Clear Education survey also included a handful of items that FIRE administered in the 2020 College Free Speech Rankings survey. In both surveys students were asked “[which] of the following issues, if any, would you say are difficult to have an open and honest conversation about on your campus?” As with our 2020 rankings survey, race, abortion, gun control, and transgender issues were the topics most frequently identified by students as difficult to discuss; however, in all four cases the percentage of students saying this was higher — and over 50% —  in the more recent Real Clear Education survey. 

Students were also asked how comfortable they were discussing a controversial political topic with their classmates, writing an op-ed for the student newspaper critical of the administration, publicly disagreeing with a professor about a controversial topic, and expressing an unpopular opinion on a social media account linked to their name. The percentage of students who said they would feel “very comfortable” engaging in each of the expressive actions was slightly lower compared to the percentage of “very comfortable” students in the 2020 rankings survey:

Question % “very comfortable”: 2020 Rankings Survey % “very comfortable”: 2020 Greek Life Survey
Discussing a controversial political topic with your classmates. 25% 22%
Writing an article or op-ed in the student newspaper that is critical of the college administration. 21% 16%
Publicly disagreeing with a professor about a controversial topic. 15% 12%
Expressing an unpopular opinion on a social media account tied to your name. 12% 11%

 

The percentage of students who felt that their administration makes “it clear to students that free speech is protected on your campus” was considerably lower in the Real Clear Education survey (53%) compared to the 2020 rankings survey (70%). This was also the case when students were asked how the administration would respond to a speech controversy on campus. 23% said they expected the university to defend the speaker’s rights, compared to the 57% who expected this in the 2020 ranking survey. 

There are at least two possible explanations for these differences across the surveys. First, the more recent Greek Life survey included a “not sure” option for both questions about the administration that was not included in the 2020 rankings survey. Indeed, the portion of students who said that the administration did not make their stance on free speech clear and that they expected the university to punish the speaker in response to the second question is very similar across the two surveys. 

Second, in the 2020 rankings survey, conservative students were less likely than liberal students to think the administration made their stance on free speech clear and that it would defend a speaker’s speech rights. The percentage of conservative students surveyed in the 2020 Greek Life survey (33%) was considerably higher than the percentage of conservative students surveyed in the 2020 rankings survey (25%).

Finally, half of the fraternity and sorority members surveyed said they have self-censored at least once on their campus out of fear of how students, faculty, and/or the administration might respond. As with the administrative questions above, this percentage is slightly lower when compared to the 60% of students who reported this in the 2020 rankings survey. However, as with those administrative questions, a “not sure” option was included in the more recent Greek Life survey that was not included in the previous survey, and the percentage of students who said they have not self-censored themselves was roughly identical.

School grades

Schools at which 10 or more students were surveyed received a numerical grade based on their survey responses that summarizes how students on that campus summarize the speech environment. A total of 153 schools received a letter grade. An analysis of these grades revealed that the composition of the student body and the type of school (public vs. private) can impact how students understand the environment for freedom of expression on campus. 

Geographic diversity impacts student experience with free expression on campus and this impact depends on whether the college or university is public or private. Members of fraternities and sororities at public colleges and universities report a better environment for free expression when there are more out-of-state students enrolled. In contrast, the opposite is the case for fraternity and sorority members at private colleges or universities, where students report a more difficult environment for free expression when there are more  out-of-state students enrolled. 

The racial composition of the student body also impacts how members of fraternities and sororities evaluate the expression environment on their campus. Specifically, fraternity and sorority members on campuses that are more racially diverse report a more difficult expression climate compared to fraternity and sorority members on campuses that are more racially homogenous (i.e., a greater percentage of white students). The report notes that this finding may, in part, be a result of students reporting that race was the “most difficult topic to have an open and honest conversation about on [my] campus,” and that the survey was conducted last summer between June 1 and September 1. 

Conclusions

Real Clear Education’s 2020 Greek Life survey is just the latest set of data indicating the precarious state of free expression on campuses today. These data are unique in their focus on fraternity and sorority members and the inclusion of their experiences with freedom of association, although there are some exceptions. Most other surveys have focused more exclusively on freedom of speech and tolerance for controversial speakers or ideas. 

Yet, controversies over freedom of association on campus and threats to freedom of association are not limited to fraternities and sororities. Political organizations and religious groups also face resistance to their formation and scrutiny over their continued existence from those on campus who disagree with their views. Freedom of association often does not get as much attention as freedom of speech or freedom of the press issues, but FIRE remains at the ready to defend student associational rights on campus.