Free Speech Must Be Protected Inside and Outside the College Classroom

A 2019 report by the Knight Foundation on the state of collegiate student expression made the troubling conclusion that “students largely agree that the political and social climate on college campuses prevents some students from saying what they really believe because they’re afraid of offending their classmates.” The data revealed that 68% felt silenced because “their campus climate precludes students from expressing their true opinions because their classmates might find them offensive.”

Given my own research regarding bullying and silencing of dissent on our nation’s college and university campuses, I have every reason to think that this finding is correct. But, this finding is incomplete and somewhere misleading because speech is regularly silenced well outside the classroom, and the viewpoint diversity crisis regrettably extends into all facets of collegiate life.

Years of personal observations suggest that many students are not just afraid of speaking their minds in front of their peers inside the classroom  – many are frightened to express their views outside of the classroom as residence halls, student unions, and dining halls are the very places where students spend most of their social time while on campus. These spaces are not only where powerful, hyper-progressive college administrators loom large and set the speech agenda, but are also the spaces where students develop their own reputations and social standing within various groups. If a student “offends” another student by disagreeing with the social justice mandates on campus, the social consequences could have a chilling effect on discourse and debate.

[Court Allows Indirect Control of Campus Speech]

As an example, I am currently teaching a First-Year Study at Sarah Lawrence College called American Dreams. The class is a deep dive into our nation’s difficult history and addresses the question of what it means to be an American today and how that has changed over time.

In creating the class, I was deeply concerned with promoting intellectual and ideological balance, along with creating a space where students could freely question and discuss questions ranging from identity politics to social policy. As such, the reading list is as a mix of social science works, historical pieces, and memoirs, which range from Charles Murray’s Coming Apart to Ta-Nehisi Coates Between the World and Me and is intended to offer a wide range of perspectives on the American Dream and truly promote viewpoint diversity.

I even included specific provisions in the syllabus to promote balance, such as reminding students of the 1967 Chicago Kalven Committee Report about the import of higher education as an “institution which creates discontent with the existing social arrangements and proposes new ones. In brief, a good university, like Socrates, will be upsetting.”

Moreover, the class operates  under Chatham House rules along with the College’s Principles of Mutual Respect which not only asserts that those in the school’s community seek to “embrace our diversity in all its dimensions” but also that we work to “foster honest inquiry, free speech, and open discourse.”

[Bloomberg Warns Colleges About Limiting Free Speech]

This course was recently featured in the Chronicle of Higher Education because the class explicitly attempts to help students understand other points of view beyond the fairly narrow, progressive monoculture that afflicts so many campuses.

I share this background because my course’s content and ideological balance are hardly objectionable. However, many of my students are being bullied outside of the classroom – in their dorms, in the student center, in the dining halls – by other students for simply taking the course with me. The course content cannot possibly be the source of the bullying. Rather, the intimidation is presumably a result of a 2018 op-ed that I wrote in the New York Times which questioned the partisan and ideological nature of the programming coming out of some administrative offices on campus and resulting storm of protests and demands, which included the usual host of meritless slanderous and defamatory claims.

It now appears that by remaining in my course or by not explicitly and publicly condemning me in some capacity, the students risk reputational damage and the stress of being viewed as  pariahs or being labeled a complicit supporter of me or my “objectionable views.” I truly do not envy my students here and completely empathize with the position my students find themselves in.

I am grateful that my students come to class ready to engage, question, and debate topics and questions across the ideological spectrum, but it is completely unacceptable that they must censor themselves or feel the slightest bit of discomfort over attending my class.

Sadly, the Sarah Lawrence College story here is not an isolated problem. I have heard similar stories from scores of students at other schools around the country. Students are regularly silencing themselves in social and private settings as much as in their classrooms because they are well aware of the consequences of speaking out against the progressive waves on our campuses. Self-censorship and being afraid to ask questions is the antithesis of higher education’s very mission and simply has to stop; being aware of what happens to students beyond the classroom is a first step to taking action to address the speech problems.

[Intimidation-Produced Silence at Stanford]

Accordingly, future research and thinking about how to address questions of free speech and its protection must consider what happens in both the classroom along with the bigger picture of student life going forward. It is critical that we recognize that many more speech flare-ups happen in residential and social settings, and addressing those areas of collegiate life is key. The Sarah Lawrence community saw a mob come for me. I could hold the line as a tenured professor; students know that a social justice mob could come for them, too, and may understandably not have the capital or fortitude to do the same. Broadening our scope to the many places outside the classroom and the academe is an absolute must if viewpoint diversity is to thrive on our collegiate campuses.

Samuel J. Abrams

Samuel J. Abrams

Samuel J. Abrams is a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

2 thoughts on “Free Speech Must Be Protected Inside and Outside the College Classroom

  1. My son is a junior in college. He is at his 4th college, all public schools. I have degrees from 3 schools and am attending a 4th in pursuit of my Ed. D. I am a dyed in the wool conservative as is my son. His hero is Ben Shapiro. Neither of us has seen, nor do we personally know, anyone who has suffered of what you speak. I am not questioning your honesty, but your interpretation of the facts may be off. Thank you for the article.

  2. “…students know that a social justice mob could come for them, too, and may understandably not have the capital or fortitude to do the same.”

    It’s not even that as much as the fact that students exist at the dispensation of the faculty and administration. Everything they need is either granted or denied at the whim of another. It’s not just grades, its internships, letters of recommendation, jobs, housing, even being able to remain on campus.

    Also, these social justice mobs are not organic — they are loosely organized and supported by the tenured radicals. Dispensation works both ways, and there’s very much a reward system for SJW. It’s very much like the power that Fraternities & Sororities had 40 years ago.

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