Conservative students fear consequences of speaking out

A new poll suggests that liberal college students are far more comfortable sharing their political views on campus than are their conservative and moderate peers.

Survey results published last week by Heterodox Academy, an organization dedicated to promoting viewpoint diversity in higher education, show that conservative students are much more likely than liberal students to fear negative consequences for expressing their views on issues involving race, gender, and politics—not only in the classroom, but also in less formal settings.

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Heterodox Academy Research Director Sean Stevens explained that the organization developed its “Fearless Speech Index” (FSI) as a way of measuring the actual impact of speech restrictions that anecdotal evidence suggests have led many students and professors to feel as though they are “walking on eggshells” when addressing controversial topics.

“Norms about speech seem to be changing rapidly on many college campuses,” he observes. “Universities are offering or requiring training in recognizing ‘microaggressions,’ and they are creating ‘bias response teams’ to make it easy for students to report professors and fellow students who commit microaggressions.”

In an effort to assess the specific impact of such speech restrictions, the FSI asks students to report how comfortable they would feel discussing various controversial issues in a classroom environment with 20-30 other students, after which it prompts them to specify the particular consequences they fear might result from doing so.

The survey used a 1-4 scale, with 1 indicating that a student is “very comfortable” discussing a given topic, and 4 indicating that the student is “very reluctant.”

“We use this as the focal situation because it is the place where it is most urgent for students to participate honestly,” Stevens noted. “If students are self-censoring in such class discussions, they are harming their fellow students by giving them a less interesting class and a false impression of the social consensus.”

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Overall, the students surveyed expressed neither comfort nor reluctance in discussing any of the hot-button issues mentioned, but the assessments differed greatly based on political orientation, with liberal students expressing far more confidence than conservative students.

Across all three topics, liberals reported an average score just over 2.0, indicating only slight concern about sharing their views, whereas conservatives posted average scores between 2.5 and 3.0. Notably, conservatives, moderates, and liberals all reported a high degree of comfort (around 1.5 for each group) discussing a generic “non-controversial issue” that was included as a control.

Of particular concern for the conservative students was the fear that articulating their views would result in either a grading penalty from the instructor or criticism from peers who find their views “offensive.”

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“Conservatives were far more reluctant to speak up than liberals during class discussions related to race, politics, and gender,” Stevens concluded. “They were also more concerned about every negative consequence we asked about.”

Stevens noted that the dataset provided “is in no way a representative sample of college students,” but expressed confidence that even if the actual numbers might change, a nationally representative sample would confirm the organization’s general conclusions.

A recent poll conducted by Pew Research Center produced results suggesting a similar trend, finding that Democrats are significantly more likely than Republicans to say that it would “strain” their relationship to learn that a friend had voted for the other party’s candidate.

Among all respondents (not just college students), 35 percent of Democrats said that a friend voting for Donald Trump would strain their friendship, while only 13 percent of Republicans said that a friend voting for Hillary Clinton would have the same effect.

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