SURVEY: Liberal hegemony stifles free speech on campus

A substantial new study from the Cato Institute offers shocking insights into the state of free speech in America, finding that 58 percent of Americans are afraid to share certain opinions.

As some of the most high-profile free speech controversies have occurred on the nation’s college campuses, Cato’s study takes a detailed look at the current reception of the First Amendment on campus, touching on everything from speaker shut downs to popular social-justice buzzwords and the political views of students.

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For instance, the study found that most students believe that their peers are liberal, with 50 percent saying liberalism is the most common political belief among student bodies, 21 percent responding that moderate views are the most common, and 8 percent giving the title to conservatism.

Notably, just 20 percent believe their campus has a “balanced mix” of political views.

Meanwhile, an overwhelming 66 percent of Americans believe that colleges aren’t doing enough to instill the value of free expression in college students, though just 51 percent of college students agreed with that sentiment.

Along those lines, 65 percent of respondents said universities should expose students to “all types of viewpoints if they are offensive or biased against certain groups,” while 34 percent instead thought that colleges should “prohibit offensive speech that is biased against certain groups.”

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The study, though, found a contradiction among Americans in that while they agree about the importance of intellectual diversity, 53 percent simultaneously think universities have “an obligation to protect students from offensive speech and ideas that could create a difficult learning environment.”

Additionally, the study surveyed Americans on who precisely they believe should be prevented from speaking on campus, offering a dozen hypothetical speakers and inquiring with participants who they think should “not be allowed to speak.”

Respondents were most turned off by a speaker “who advocates for violent protests,” with 81 percent agreeing that such a speaker should not be allowed to lecture on campus, while on the other end of the spectrum just 40 percent claimed that a speaker who “says men on average are better at math than women” shouldn’t be allowed.

The survey also looked at whether popularized shutdowns of speakers are part of a “broader pattern” or simply isolated incidents, with 76 percent calling it a trend and only 22 percent taking the opposite view.

“This perception is not controversial. Strong majorities of current students and non-students alike believe recent shut downs of campus speakers tell us something broader about how students deal with offensive ideas,” the study elaborates before asking respondents how universities should discipline student protesters.

The results were mostly split along party lines, and while 65 percent overall though that colleges should do something to discipline students who shut down events, 75 percent of Republicans supported punishment compared to 42 percent of Democrats.

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As the study explains, Democrats prefer solutions that involve listening and addressing student concerns, while Republicans prefer a warning or a note on academic records.

“Given that research shows most of academia leans left of center, this might help explain why few universities have punished students who have shut down controversial events,” Cato’s study points out, though Democrats and Republicans are closer in agreement on how colleges should respond to threats of violence, with 74 percent of Democrats saying an event should be cancelled in the face of threats and 54 percent of Republicans agree.

The study then transitions to several popular buzzwords floated around on campus, such as “microaggression,” “trigger warning,” and the like, noting right off the bat that 51 percent of all respondents oppose so-called “bias reporting systems,” whereas 68 percent of current students support their usage.

Cato then presented several examples of microaggressions commonly used by college administrators, such as “you speak good English,” “you are so articulate,” “I don’t notice people’s race,” “everyone can succeed in society if they work hard enough,” and “America is a melting pot.”

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In every case, the majority of both African Americans and Latinos did not find such statements to be “offensive,” with 70 percent of Asian Americans considering the question “where are you from?” innocuous.

The study, titled “The State of Free Speech and Tolerance in America,” collected responses with the help of YouGov between August 15 to 23 from 2,547 Americans over the age of 18, with a final dataset of 2,300 weighted to correspond to a representative national sample of adults.

In her look at college campuses, author Emily Ekins concludes by noting that “there is a widespread perception that most faculty and students in colleges are liberal,” which she considers a threat to the intellectual vibrancy of higher education.

“These results matter because if universities become political echo chambers, it could lead to the exclusion of non-conforming political views, self-censorship, and less rigorous academic inquiry,” she points out. "Without a free exchange of ideas, there may be less thorough checking of academic work and the quality of research may decline. By extension, the public may lose confidence in the process of academic inquiry and become skeptical of its results.”

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @AGockowski