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Is Conservative Self-Censorship a Real Thing on College Campuses?

February 20, 2020

February 20, 2020
By Jonathan Butcher

The University of North Carolina yearbook is aptly named the “Yackety Yack,” an album of ideas, events, and activities—“speech”—on campus each year. Yet a recent survey finds many UNC students are afraid to do just that: Speak.

Consistent with the results of a 2019 Knight Foundation survey of students from across the country, a significant slice of the Tarheel study body hesitates to share their opinions because they fear how their peers or professors may respond. And students are divided sharply along ideological lines. Almost 40 percent of students that identify as conservative say that they have some level of “concern” that other students would file a complaint against them based on something they say in a class that discusses politics.

These concerns are not unfounded: The University of Michigan recently disbanded the school’s Bias Response Team after the student membership organization Speech First filed a lawsuit. Nearly all—more than 96 percent—of self-identifying liberal students at UNC say this issue is “irrelevant” or that they are not concerned about others filing a complaint.

Seventeen percent of conservative students said they “kept an opinion related to class to themselves” more than 10 times. This sounds like a modest figure, but just 1.5 percent of liberal respondents said they self-censored to this degree. Seventy-six percent of liberal students said they never chose to keep ideas to themselves, compared to 32 percent of conservatives.  

The researchers write that “sharing diverse viewpoints serves an indispensable pedagogical and epistemological function,” which means self-censorship interferes with the primary purpose of the academy. The authors go on to say: “The asymmetry between left-leaning and right-leaning students’ concerns about expressing sincere views raises significant questions about whether a full range of political views are finding voice in campus discussions.”

Other institutions have also recognized this problem. Last week, the Georgetown University student newspaper reported that “some conservative students…may temper what they say to others because of their ideological minority status.” One student described receiving “dirty looks” while simply handing out copies of the U.S. Constitution.

Here again, the fears are grounded in reality. The Knight survey mentioned above found that 51 percent of students approved shouting down speakers with which they disagreed “always” or “sometimes,” another idea reflected in the UNC report. In Chapel Hill, 25 percent of respondents were prepared to create an “obstruction” to interfere with a speaker. Approximately one in five UNC students surveyed approved of forming “a picket line to block students from entering an event.”

Heritage Foundation and Goldwater Institute research explains that when college administrators allow such disruption, state lawmakers must act and protect the rights of everyone to listen and be heard in a public university. In 2017, North Carolina lawmakers adopted a proposal that instructs university officials to consider sanctioning students that violate someone else’s expressive rights—such as shouting down a speaker.

The survey authors warn that the report is not meant to highlight political differences on UNC’s campus. “Politics is not a regular topic of conversation in most classes,” the researchers write. “Most instructors are perceived…as encouraging participation from liberals and conservatives alike,” they said.

“The wrong way to interpret our report would be to see it as pitting liberals against conservatives,” they said.

The correct—and nonpartisan—way to describe the results is that schools such as UNC should do more to encourage “constructive dialogue.” Everyone in a campus community should “arrest human tendencies toward sectarianism, partisanship, and resentment.”

Concerned about similar problems in 1969, William F. Buckley told a college preparatory school’s graduating class, “It is the students’ responsibility…to insist as best they can that reason be introduced to all discussions, especially those most highly vexed by passion.” Buckley’s God and Man at Yale was one of the first books to confront the lack of ideological diversity in the academy, so his admonition to bring order to debates while holding on to our convictions comes from experience.

It is the responsibility of academics, and if not these instructors or administrators, then state lawmakers, to make sure students are not living in fear. Students should make speech their “principal contribution,” as Buckley says elsewhere, to the pursuit of truth.

Jonathan Butcher is a Senior Fellow at the Goldwater Institute.



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