It can be difficult to cut through the noise on campus free speech, an issue that arouses strong — and sometimes poorly informed — opinions both inside and outside higher ed.
The issue is so charged that even survey data can be shrouded in controversy. After several news outlets reported last month on a Brookings Institution survey that found a significant percentage of students agreed that violence could be used to combat hateful speech, several scholars contended the survey’s methodology was poor. One even called it "junk science."
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, an organization that advocates for free speech in higher ed, on Wednesday released its latest report on free-speech attitudes on campuses. The results draw on responses last summer from 1,250 undergraduates attending two- or four-year colleges in the United States.
Here are three interesting findings:
1. Only 1 percent of students would consider disrupting a guest speaker with violent action.
This finding contradicts the Brookings study, which found that nearly 20 percent of college students said it would be acceptable for groups to engage in violence to stop a controversial speaker. The results of that study, conducted by an electrical-engineering professor, have been criticized over an ambiguous methodology section and the fact that it didn’t randomly sample students, among other things.
According to the FIRE study, if a speaker has a history of racist or hateful comments, then 69 percent of students who already support disinvitations agree that the speaker’s invitation should be withdrawn.
But students are not prone to simply avoid speakers they don’t agree with. Forty-two percent of respondents to the survey said they might attend a speech by a speaker with whom they strongly disagree. Others said they might boycott (16 percent) or attend a protest (11 percent); similar proportions said they would write a letter to the campus newspaper (13 percent) or post on social media (15 percent).
Less than 5 percent said they would consider taking down fliers, preventing other students from attending, heckling the speaker (although a third said they would pipe up during the speaker’s Q&A session), or resorting to violent tactics.
Anti-Americans, abortion providers, and racists would be the first speakers disinvited by Republican students responding to the survey. Democratic students would disinvite racists, sexists, and homophobes, and 43 percent said they’d disinvite President Trump, although those respondents were more likely to support disinvitations over all (66 percent) than were their Republican counterparts (47 percent).
2. Students all along the ideological spectrum have their own concerns with free expression on campus.
Very liberal students are more likely to push to disinvite a speaker, while Republican students believe they should not have to walk past student protests.
Only 38 percent of very conservative students support canceling a speaking event in some instances, compared with 78 percent of very liberal students.
If a college or university cannot provide adequate security for a speaker, a little less than half of students believe the event should be canceled, while 20 percent believe the speaker should not be invited if protests are planned.
Republicans and very conservative students take issue with protests: A little less than two-thirds of very conservative students and 60 percent of Republicans believe they should not have to walk through a campus protest. Only 17 percent of very liberal students, and 28 percent of Democrats, agree.
3. Most students are comfortable expressing themselves, but the degree varies.
Very liberal students seem more comfortable sharing opinions in the classroom than do very conservative students, with a difference of 14 percentage points. Once out of the classroom and on the campus, the gap widens to 21 percentage points.
Most students feel comfortable sharing their ideas and opinions in the classroom, but that comfort shifts if the student is African-American or Latino, with more than 90 percent in both groups feeling comfortable enough to share. But only 85 percent of white students are comfortable sharing their thoughts.
Ninety-two percent of survey respondents said being exposed to other students’ ideas and opinions is important to a college education. If students strongly disagree with their peers in the classroom, they’re almost three times as likely to attempt to understand another student’s point of view if it’s not a racist or hurtful statement. Half of respondents said they might avoid a classmate who had made statements considered racist.