In the past decade, schools ranging from Yale University, to Middlebury College, to my own Sarah Lawrence College, have made national news over how they have handled issues of free speech and cancel culture. In reaction, many studies and reports have examined institutional initiatives and the free speech environments surrounding protests and viewpoint diversity. But this research has focused far less on Gen Z itself: the generation making up today’s student population that has been violent, that has shouted down speakers, and that has tried to silence many on their respective campuses.
Are certain types of students more likely than others to cancel speakers and shut down the dissemination of diverse viewpoints? Thanks to new data from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), we now have up-to-date empirical evidence suggesting that not all college students are interested in blocking free speech or canceling others. The new FIRE survey about free speech on college campuses captures the voices of over 37,000 students at 159 colleges and universities across the country—it finds that many students reject cancel culture, whereas some well-organized groups thrive on it. And while willingness to block free speech differs somewhat across racial identities and institution types, the data reveal that it is across political affiliations, academic courses of study, gender identities, and sexual orientations where the most significant variances emerge.
Starting with partisanship, over half (52 percent) of students who identify as strong Democrats believe it is either always or sometimes acceptable to shout down a speaker on campus. This figure is notably lower among weak Democrats (34 percent) and Democratic leaners (36 percent). In comparison, less than a quarter (22 percent) of Independent students say that trying to disrupt a speaker is always or sometimes acceptable. The figure drops to just 12 percent for students who lean Republican and 14 percent for those who identify as weak Republicans. Only 10 percent of students who identify as strong Republicans believe it is at least sometimes acceptable to shout down a speaker on campus. These non-trivial differences make it apparent that Democratic students are far more open to limiting the exchange of ideas than their Republican and Independent counterparts. We ought to call into question the common claim that Democrats prize open-mindedness, tolerance, and inclusivity.
Going further, one’s choice of major also has a significant impact on speech. While engineering and computer science are fields primarily interested in finding formal, mathematically-based solutions to the world’s problems, those who study humanities such as anthropology often see themselves as inherently political and believe that they are activists. As such, over half (51 percent) of humanities and area studies majors say there are cases where it would be acceptable to intimidate and block their peers from attending a campus speaking event. In contrast, barely a third of those majoring in business-related fields (36 percent) and computer science or engineering (36 percent) can justify trying to stop their peers from attending a speech. While major selection obviously involves some political sorting, as certain areas of study are far more political than others, this difference is nonetheless noteworthy.
Perhaps the most salient predictors of one’s willingness to inhibit viewpoint diversity are gender and sexuality. About a quarter of male (22 percent) and female (25 percent) identifying students can identify cases where violence would be an acceptable means by which to stop a campus presentation. That figure jumps to over half (54 percent) for students who identify as non-binary.
Moreover, about one in 10 (11 percent) straight or heterosexual identifying students maintain that there are at least some cases in which it is acceptable to shout down speakers. Over twice as many gay or lesbian (27 percent) and queer identifying (39 percent) students say the same. Additionally, over half (53 percent) of queer students believe that there are cases in which violence is an acceptable way to stop campus speech, compared to 38 percent of gay or lesbian students and 20 percent of straight or heterosexual students.
The FIRE data make it clear that there are powerful demographic markers that fuel support for cancel culture. These students may have valid and legitimate reasons for feeling the way they do. However, intellectual diversity remains the hallmark of a healthy and vibrant educational system, even if certain ideas make particular groups uncomfortable. No one should have the right to promote a culture of fear or repression over others just because they disagree with specific perspectives—this is especially true on college campuses. The pursuit of truth through debate and disagreement is the bedrock of a strong educational experience, and going forward, we now know that not all students believe cancellation is an acceptable course of action. We can therefore work to better educate those that would silence dissent and dialogue.