Higher Ed's Free Speech Death Spiral | Opinion

The mission of every college and university is to provide a forum for the free exchange of thought, vigorous debate and the broadest possible range of ideas. At least, that is what it ought to be. But that mission is at odds with the spirit of our present age, defined by silos of chatroom groupthink, social media shaming, hyper-partisan news media, self-conscious corporate virtue signaling and puritanical language policing.

In this environment, sometimes it feels like the safest thing to do is just to stay silent. And that seems to be the approach more students are taking these days. A massive new survey of 37,000 college students reveals that more than 80 percent of them self-censor in the classroom, on campus and online. The survey forms the basis of the 2021 College Free Speech Rankings, produced by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), RealClearEducation (my organization) and the research firm College Pulse.

We asked students how open they were to having difficult conversations about issues like abortion and affirmative action, and how willing they would be to allow controversial liberal or conservative guest speakers on campus. We also asked students to tell us if they felt their college administrators would support free speech if someone were to say something offensive.

Overall, the answers we got paint an ominous picture. When we asked students if they were comfortable publicly disagreeing with a professor about a controversial topic, only 40 percent said yes.

The most troubling revelation of the survey is how comfortable students are with resorting to disruptive conduct to crush speech they don't like. Nearly one in four students say it's acceptable to use violence to stop unwanted speech. At some elite universities, that number is as high as one in three.

Students aren't comfortable speaking themselves, and they aren't very tolerant of others' speech either.

Free speech campus protest
A woman stomps on a free speech sign after conservative commentator Milo Yiannopoulos spoke to a crowd of supporters on the University of California, Berkeley campus on September 24, 2017. Although a student group cancelled plans for Free Speech Week, Yiannopoulos was able to speak on campus surrounded by a heavy police presence. JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images

It's no coincidence that in an era when we sometimes hear that "words are violence," young people now think actual physical violence is an appropriate response to offensive words. The great irony of our age is that personal hypersensitivity tends to desensitize us to the suffering of others. Speak correctly to me—or else.

Greg Lukianoff, the president of FIRE, recently told me that he sees a strong connection between the rise of social media and the decline of free speech. "Social media took obscure ideas from campus and perfected them as weapons to enforce ideological conformity," he said. And I think he's right. We all recognize how impossible it is to have constructive disagreements with friends and family, much less strangers, on Facebook or Twitter. People are quick to say things online they would never say to someone's face.

We are losing the humanizing force of community. The internet has connected us like never before while simultaneously tearing our social fabric apart—that may be the other great irony of our time.

Given the tendency of the internet to coarsen our discourse and magnify our differences, it is no surprise that students find it harder to speak freely online as well. Forty-two percent of students said exchanging ideas online was more difficult than doing so in person. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a majority of colleges shifted to online instruction last year. The classroom went virtual. Often those online classes were recorded, producing at least the implicit threat of video evidence for any potential speaking crimes, and adding to the feeling that what you say can and will be used against you in the court of public opinion.

If free speech is a rarer commodity online than it is on a physical campus, it illustrates that the collegiate speech controversies we often hear about are not unique to their campuses. On the contrary, it may be that college campuses simply represent the leading edge of the sword that is cutting our society into bits and pieces of atomized ideological factions.

While there's no going back when it comes to the divisive force of technology in our daily lives, institutions of higher learning have the power to push back against that divisiveness. If they make it a priority, college leaders can foster campus environments that promote healthy debate and encourage students both to speak up and to listen to one another. We know this is the case because our study revealed significant differences in students' attitudes toward free speech from one campus to another.

Some colleges, our rankings show, are doing a great job of counteracting the fearful spirit of our age. Their leaders are actively defending free speech, even when it's unpopular. In this way, they are serving their students well. They're holding fast to the noble mission of higher learning and—who knows—maybe staving off the demise of civilization too.

Nathan Harden is the Education Editor for RealClearPolitics.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.