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Stephen Carter: When students fear speaking up

Stephen Carter: When students fear speaking up

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Maybe I’m a mite over- concerned about the findings of the just-released survey by McLaughlin & Associates about the attitudes of college students toward free speech. The survey, conducted during September on behalf of Yale University’s William F. Buckley Jr. Program, found some disturbing responses on basic questions about just how free students think their own campus speech is.

I’ll start with the good stuff. Most students surveyed (73 percent) don’t want to scrap the First Amendment. True, a depressing 30 percent of self-described liberals think it’s time to rewrite the amendment’s guarantee of free speech. But I suspect the Constitution will survive their displeasure.

Second, only 10 percent think their colleges should go further in regulating speech, although there the question seems to me fairly loaded against regulation. (And I say this as one who thinks regulation of speech on campus, however well-intentioned, is a terrible thing, bound to end in disaster.)

Only 16 percent of students say debate should be more restricted at the college level than in the society at large. Some 38 percent say debate should be less limited, and 43 percent say there should be no difference.

The third happy result is that overwhelming majorities reported that their own professors tolerate diverse opinions in the classroom. In fact, the figure was over 80 percent in every demographic group except part-time students, and even there the figure was 72 percent.

From there, things get worse.

The survey asked whether students felt intimidated about sharing their own views because they differed from either the views of their professors or the views of their classmates. On both questions, respondents split almost evenly. Republicans were slightly more likely than Democrats to have experienced classroom intimidation, and men were slightly more likely than women.

The outlier group, by a significant margin, is Hispanic students, of whom some 56 percent report feeling intimidated, compared with 49 percent of black students and 45 percent of white students.

Recent research has indicated that peers play a more important role than professors in pressuring college students to change their views. So when the survey moves from intimidation in the classroom to intimidation by peers, we should see a shift.

There is a significant difference between reports of intimidation by students aged 22 and under (53 percent) as against older students (48 percent) — a distinction that might have more to do with maturity than politics. We also learn that although 54 percent of students at four-year colleges report peer intimidation, the figure at two-year colleges is only 42 percent.

More intriguing still is that students who self-identify as political independents are significantly less likely than those who self-identify as Republicans or Democrats to report intimidation by either professors or peers.

This phenomenon seems to me to have a common sense explanation. A highly partisan student is more likely to spend large amounts of time in the company of other highly partisan students — and partisans, especially nowadays, don’t like to be disagreed with.

Still, the intimidation findings are depressing. Essentially half of college students say they are afraid to speak up when their peers disagree with them. This may be a sign that young people are in some fundamental sense weaker than earlier generations, but we can’t tell, because we have no reliable survey data from, say, 40 years ago. Or perhaps it’s a sign that critics are correct, and things have changed fundamentally on campus.

The survey’s most counterintuitive finding might be that although a plurality of students (37 percent) thinks their school is more tolerant of liberal than conservative beliefs, self-described liberals (at 51 percent) are far more likely than self-described conservatives (at 35 percent) to believe this. Could it really be, despite all the hype about political correctness, that conservatives are less intimidated on campus than liberals?

First, it may be that students at four-year colleges are more likely than students at two-year colleges to be liberal. Given that the study finds students at two-year colleges report less intimidation overall, the data might actually be picking up the difference in who’s enrolled where.

Second, liberal and conservative students are unlikely to be equally represented in all majors or, within a major, in all courses. It’s possible, then, that more liberal students self- select into exactly the sort of courses where dissent is less tolerated.

It’s refreshing to learn how few students support restrictions on campus speech. At the same time, it’s depressing to learn how many don’t feel free to speak up when they disagree with faculty or peers. Those of us who dwell in academia should celebrate the first and do what we can to remedy the second.

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