For the last year or so, columnists have been using anecdotes to support extremely broad claims about the state of free speech on campus. The argument typically goes something like this: Today's radical college "leftists" employ the very fascistic tactics they decry. They shout down speakers they don't agree with and sometimes they use violence in an attempt to prevent them from giving speeches. They want trigger warnings on classic novels and safe spaces to shield them from hatred. This kind of behavior is a direct assault on free speech, and if we do not stop these misguided children, then our obviously well-functioning democratic republic will descend into a totalitarian state, Trump will be President forever, our brains will rot, students will become the teachers, discourse will dissolve, and writers who use bad evidence to support their claims will be elevated to the esteemed offices of the New York Times Opinion Page. And how ironic. How truly sad. College campuses used to be fortresses for free speech. But now they're free speech murderholes.
(Incidentally, Dan, Eli and I have covered the subject more than once on Blabbermouth, the Stranger's podcast. Subscribe if you haven't already. Please rate us favorably. I need the box food that advertisers sometimes send to the show or else I will waste away.)
Anyway, on Monday, Matt Yglesias brought some welcome and much needed data to the conversation in a piece for Vox. His analysis, combined with a pretty extensive Knight Foundation poll that was also released Monday, shows that a majority of college students—even liberal ones!—support free speech, though minorities, women, and Democrats say they're more open to some restrictions on speech for the sake of promoting a more inclusive society.
Citing the General Social Survey, Yglesias finds that since the 1970s "society has become dramatically more tolerant" of extremist speakers. (In this survey, "extremist speakers" include communists, homosexuals, racists, militarists, and anti-theists.) People with college degrees, Yglesias points out, favor free speech more than those with a high school diploma or less. So today's crop of college grads likely will not become tomorrow's goose-stepping PC inquisition lawyers or whatever. They'll become the open-minded (and completely debt-saddled) young professionals that liberal arts education is designed to produce.
Yglesias does mention that since the 1990s, moderate liberals have become slightly less tolerant of racist speakers while conservatives have become more tolerant of racist speakers, but the general trend is for more free speech. Except, notably, in the case of radical Muslim clerics. About 66 percent of the population says that a U.S.-hating Muslim cleric "should not be allowed to teach in a college, and a very slight majority, about 51 percent, says such a cleric’s books should be removed from a library."
That Knight Foundation/Gallup poll adds more detail to these observations. In their survey of 3,014 U.S. college students, a majority of students (56 percent) say that "protecting citizens' free speech rights is extremely important." Another 33 percent say it's "very important." Seventy percent "widely favor an open learning environment on campus that allows all types of speech" in the classroom, including "offensive speech."
The Knight Foundation does note that "opinions shifted slightly away from favoring an open environment since 2016 when the margin was 78% to 22%." This slight shift matters even less when you remember that teachers make the decisions about the material and language they allow in their classrooms, and while some students may not prefer to engage with offensive speech—whether that be blasphemy or racist slurs—ultimately they don't have a lot of say.
There is one set of data that may seem worrisome to those who believe there's a free speech crisis on campus. When forced to choose, 53 percent of college students will say that "promoting an inclusive society that is welcoming of diverse groups" is more important in a democracy than protecting free speech rights. Forty-six percent will say the opposite.
The race, gender, and ideological breakdown here is telling. White people, men, and Republicans—all people who are in power now and who have traditionally held positions of power—favor free speech over promoting an inclusive society. Minorities, women, and Democrats—all people who aren't in power now and who have traditionally been excluded from powerful positions—favor promoting an inclusive society.
All of that makes sense. Free speech protections give minorities and women the ability to speak truth to power, but the impact of that speech is limited in a society run largely by white men. (Some potentially helpful contextual information: Seventy percent of university presidents are men, and 83 percent are white. Efforts to increase diversity on this front have been slow-going.) Marginalized groups may want to promote diversity of opinion and inclusivity so that their speech will carry more weight. And if we've learned nothing else from 2016, we've learned that white Republicans view calls for diversity and inclusivity as direct threats to their power, and they're not keen on giving any of that up.
The survey question is also weird because it presents a false choice in a vacuum. One can strongly support free speech and promote an inclusive, more diverse society at the same time. Asking this question in this abstract way forces students to conjure up recent examples of free speech battles in order answer. If Milo and Richard Spencer are yelling the loudest about free speech, then I can see how people might think promoting diversity might be the more important priority for democracy at the moment. And considering that 57 percent of black people, 51 percent of women, and 58 percent of Democrats said free speech is "extremely important," it's hard to point to that one data set and say that there's any crisis here.
The question is useful, though, in that it may help redirect the conversation between the PC police and the policers of the PC police. If they want to win, the latter team must stop pointing to the hypocrisy of protesters using the same fascistic tactics they decry (and then ringing apocalyptic alarm bells as they pat themselves on the back) and start making an argument about how respecting the free speech rights of Nazis and nutty professors promotes an inclusive and diverse society.
But if columnists really can't see past the unsavory tactics of some protesters, they'll be happy to learn that a vast majority of students agree with them. According to the poll, "Ninety percent of college students say it is never acceptable to use violence to prevent someone from speaking, but 10 percent say is acceptable sometimes." (It's worth mentioning, though, that on Monday, Richard Spencer canceled his campus speaking tour because Antifa protests made his trolling expeditions no "fun" anymore.) Meanwhile, 63 percent of students don't even like the tactic of shouting down speakers.
These new polls should come as a great relief to columnists. Now they can finally stop worrying so much about the death of free speech on campus and pay more attention to any number of actual crises facing colleges. And let's get serious here for a second. For those who are truly concerned about the strength of our democracy, the following issues—which took all of about four minutes to think up—should be infinitely more worrisome than the issue of kids feeling skeptical about free speech in era when white nationalists are cynically (and consciously) co-opting it to serve their own ends. Together these issues paint a picture of a higher education ecosystem that's precisely as fucked up as the rest of the country, a place with growing income inequality and higher barriers to entry, exploited workers, rampant rape and harassment, and surges of racist activity. But these problems bear the burden of being so obviously bad and yet so maddeningly difficult to address that they don't lend themselves to the neat genre of column writing.
• Massive cuts to universities have dramatically increased tuition and notably decreased the quality of education.
• In a great piece in Splinter last week, Clio Chang pointed to the rising influence of conservative donors on campus. She argues that "student protests are better seen as a symptom of wealthy, conservative donor influence that has transformed our campuses over the last few decades. Obfuscating this fact only concedes more ground to the right’s mission."
• Universities increasingly rely on adjunct professors to teach classes. They're precariously employed, underpaid for the work they do, and completely overburdened by work when they have it. When teachers suffer like this, students suffer, too.
• Meanwhile, university administrations routinely try to slow or stop grad students and professors from unionizing.
• And, of course, universities all over the country are still prioritizing sports over academics.
There are a lot of problems on campus. The numbers suggest that the death of free speech isn't one of them.