Even Liberal Students Are Afraid to Speak

Free speech and open expression—the very keystones of higher education—are under threat. This is an issue that now impacts all students, not just those on the Right.

Earlier this week, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) released its 2022 study of student perceptions of free speech on college campuses—the results are sobering. Sampling the voices of almost 45,000 currently enrolled students at over 200 colleges and universities nationwide, this study is the largest of its kind to date and shows that viewpoint diversity is under threat in the very places where debate, disagreement, and open inquiry should thrive.

Like earlier iterations of the study, the FIRE survey shows that huge numbers of students habitually self-censor, and that conservative students are far more likely to do this than their liberal counterparts. For instance, when asked a general question about expression on campus and whether students could vocalize their opinions on a subject despite how their peers, a professor, or the administration would respond, 55 percent of students report watching what they say occasionally or more frequently. This figure is comparable to earlier years of the survey.

44 percent of Democrats report self-censoring, which is notably lower than 58 percent of Independents and 73 percent of Republicans, who report regularly limiting what they say on campus. That those on the Left are able to speak more freely has been well documented. These numbers suggest that it is primarily conservative students who have been likely to silence themselves. They are thus most affected by the progressive zeitgeist that is omnipresent on collegiate campuses today.

[Related: “The Liberal College Bubble Must Burst”]

In the 2022 iteration of the survey, a number of new questions have been included, offering a powerful new twist that should give all American citizens pause: Cancel culture silences far more than just conservative students.

Regarding how much pressure students feel today in attempting to avoid discussing controversial topics in their classes, half of all students report feeling some or more significant pressure to avoid certain topics. That figure should worry all Americans. The data show that 43 percent of Democratic students report that they feel pressure to avoid particular topics, despite the fact that so much of today’s campus discourse leans liberal.

The numbers are worse for Independents, at 53 percent, and even higher, at 66 percent, among strong and weak Republicans. Beyond simply revealing just how much students self-censor, we now know that there is clear pressure on many undergraduates to edit their comments and thoughts. This is remarkably unhealthy and can make the educational environment oppressive rather than liberating and open, a core goal of collegiate life itself.

The most revealing finding emerges when the students were asked about how worried they were about damaging their reputations because of a misunderstanding of something they have said or done. A significant majority of students, 63 percent, are worried to some degree. This is far too great a number.

[Related: “Democratic Students Are Never Satisfied”]

And, when considering partisanship, there is almost no difference whatsoever. 62 percent of strong and weak Democratic students report that they are worried about reputational damage. This percentage is barely lower than the 64 percent of Independents and the 63 percent of strong and weak Republicans who experience these worries.

Thus, while there is generally a liberal campus environment fostered by progressive administrators and faculty, large numbers of liberal students nonetheless feel very real pressure to avoid particular topics, and all students are equally worried about the real consequences they may face if their ideas and words are taken out of context. It should be no wonder that our nation’s students are as anxious and depressed as they are today. Students on the Left and the Right are afraid to speak and worry about long-term reputational damage. This is the antithesis of a safe, prosperous, and authentic learning environment.

Free speech on campus is under threat—this is no longer an issue of conservative students keeping quiet while progressive students speak freely. All students are being deprived of the chance to learn, question, and make mistakes; they are not developing the skills needed to navigate a complex world of difference, trade-offs, and compromise, which is the foundation for a successful polity.

Regardless of party, students are scared of what could happen if they simply express an idea that may be controversial. Those who care about our system of higher education and the democratic health of the nation should be worried and should sound the alarm for a genuine educational experience—one that should be both joyous and, at times, uncomfortable; one filled with ample speech, debate, and discourse.


Image: Max, Adobe Stock

Samuel J. Abrams

Samuel J. Abrams is a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

One thought on “Even Liberal Students Are Afraid to Speak”

  1. Sorry, but I simply don’t believe this article.

    We know what conservative students are reluctant to say but the article says nothing about what liberal students are afraid to talk about. From what I witness on my campus there is no restriction whatsoever on expressing liberal ideas and liberal students have absolutely nothing to fear. Nothing. The notion that 44% of democrat students feel constrained on campus is laughable.

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