Saving Free Speech

Noah Webster, known as the Father of American Scholarship and Education, wrote in 1788:

It is an object of vast magnitude that systems of education should be adopted and pursued which may not only diffuse a knowledge of the sciences but may implant in the minds of the American youth the principles of virtue and of liberty and inspire them with just and liberal ideas of government and with an inviolable attachment to their own country.

But how can young Americans aspire to “the principles of virtue and of liberty” if they are too afraid to share, even in private, their opinions on important topics of our times?

A recent Foundation for Individual Rights and Expressions (FIRE) survey of 2,007 U.S. undergraduates found strong evidence of a hostile environment towards free speech on college campuses. About one in ten students reported being disciplined or threatened with discipline by college administrators. When considering the total undergraduate population in the U.S. in fall 2023, over 1.6 million students may have been penalized or faced threats of discipline for sharing their views.

Surprisingly, the most likely place where the disciplinary action or threat of it happened was in private spaces, as 26 percent of those students reported their “offending” speech deserving of discipline took place in their dorm rooms. 22 percent of those students reported punitive episodes about their speech that happened in meetings with school administrators.

The chilling atmosphere on free speech is indiscriminate because students of all races felt uneasy about speaking their minds freely. For instance, the FIRE survey found that 42 percent of Hispanic students, 48 percent of Black students, 63 percent of Asian students, and 51 percent of White students were somewhat worried about their reputations being damaged because someone misunderstood something they expressed. In addition, 35 percent of Hispanic students, 48 percent of Black students, and 38 percent of Asian students reported feeling uncomfortable in a class as a result of something someone expressed in reference to their race or ethnicity.

Students also take offense easily at others’ expressed opinions. A majority of students across all races—77 percent of Hispanic, 73 percent of black, 67 percent of Asian, and 72 percent of white— felt at least occasionally uncomfortable about things expressed in class referencing their race or ethnicity. They are equally offended by things spoken about their political views, with 67 percent of Hispanic students, 76 percent of black students, 71 percent of Asian students, and 73 percent of white students registering their uneasiness.

The absurd idea that speech is violence is endorsed by far too many, as 38 percent of all students—35 percent of Hispanic, 53 percent of black, 44 percent of Asian, and 33 percent of white, reported campus expression they have heard constitutes an act of violence.

Compared with their liberal peers, more conservative students reported being subject to discipline or threats of discipline due to their speech. Among those who identify as conservative, 12 percent of somewhat conservative students and 21 percent of far-right students were disciplined or threatened with discipline by their college administrators. By contrast, the FIRE survey records seven percent of somewhat liberal students and nine percent of far-left students as being targeted for speech.

Self-censorship is prevalent on college campuses regardless of ideology. 47 percent of somewhat conservative students, versus 46 percent of somewhat liberal students, worry about their reputations being damaged due to misunderstandings on what they expressed. 48 percent of politically moderate students worry about their words being taken out of context. Self-censorship in education always leads to the vanishing of knowledge and “along with it the joys and satisfactions of teaching and learning.”

The FIRE survey results paint a grim picture of free speech in higher education: too worried to express their viewpoints in fear of retribution and reputation loss, college students are retreating from freely exchanging ideas and engaging in thought-provoking dialogues on contested issues of consequence. In other words, real and perceived restrictions on free speech erode higher learning, which requires posting bold, thorny questions, problematizing the obvious and challenging existing paradigms with new hypotheses.

For the 2023-24 school year, Rice University is offering an undergraduate course entitled “Afrochemistry: The Study Of Black-Life Matter,” with the following description:

Students will apply chemical tools and analysis to understand Black life in the U.S. and students will implement African American sensibilities to analyze chemistry. Diverse historical and contemporary scientists, intellectuals, and chemical discoveries will inform personal reflections and proposals for addressing inequities in chemistry and chemical education. This course will be accessible to students from a variety of backgrounds including STEM and non-STEM disciplines. No prior knowledge of chemistry or African American studies is required for engagement in this course.

Scientific inquiry becomes an unserious and laughable business when science is imbued with political indoctrination. Recently, San Francisco State University published a job post for a math professor as “part of a cohort hire focused on Black and Latinx/e student success.” The successful applicant must demonstrate “[e]vidence of employing anti-racist teaching strategies” and “[e]vidence of research that contributes to equity, opportunities, and inclusion in higher education.” Since 2009, the Ohio State University School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences has provided a health sciences course that requires students to check their “white, heterosexual, or able-bodied privileges.”

With the omnipresent invasion of far-left political ideology in American higher education, it is no wonder that college students are increasingly on edge regarding their right to free speech. Worse, professors fear criticizing the political orthodoxy and challenging their students due to pressure from thought-policing administrators and students. At Bates College in not-so-progressive Maine, several faculty members have reported being intimated by the school’s DEI bureaucracy and activist students. One Anthropology professor was reprimanded by the school’s Dean of Faculty for challenging a student’s “land acknowledgment” claim. An Economics professor was concerned about the university’s future when Bates students expressed outrage at a school Instagram picture of a College Republican.

The public outcry against the moral bankruptcy among leaders of higher education in the wake of Hamas’s terrorist attack on Israel on October 7, 2023, signals the beginning of a long-overdue course correction. Several Harvard professors are calling for a return to academic freedom and free speech. A group of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) students got together and established the MIT Students for Open Inquiry, “America’s newest college organization for free speech and academic freedom.” The Alumni Free Speech Alliance, a national network of pro-free-speech alumni organizations founded in October 2021, has grown to induct members from 24 major American universities, including Harvard, Yale, Cornell, MIT, and UCLA. A 2023 survey of 802 undergraduate students by Yale’s Buckley Institute found that 78 percent of the respondents deemed the First Amendment as important and relevant.

But the battle to reclaim liberty and virtue in our higher education still has a long way to go. The Buckley survey shows that over 50 percent of college students favored speech codes and over 61 percent felt intimidated in sharing ideas, opinions, or beliefs in class because they were different from those of their professors. Ad hominem attacks on academics and students who express politically unpopular opinions or question the validity of popular ideas not only erode higher education but also threaten our democracy. It is incumbent on all of us, from active participants in higher education to concerned citizens, to rise up in defense of free speech because, without it, our democratic ideals of liberty, freedom, and equality will remain a pipe dream.

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  • Wenyuan Wu

    Wenyuan Wu is Executive Director of the Californians for Equal Rights Foundation. Twitter: @wu_wenyuan

One thought on “Saving Free Speech”

  1. ” At Bates College in not-so-progressive Maine…”

    Ummm, Maine, particularly south of the Kennebec River, ain’t what it was 30 years ago…

    Nor is the city of Lewiston, where Bates is located — what had been a seen-better-days struggling former milltown with lots of unemployment in the 1980s was transformed first by improved access to I-95 which made it a bedroom community of Portland, and then the massive resettlement of Somali immigrants.

    Statewide, it’s what happened to Vermont 30 years earlier — rich left-leaning progressives (in this case from Metro Boston as opposed to Metro NYC) moved in and turned what had been a working class “meat & potatoes” state into something that Maine Natives don’t even recognize anymore. Downtown Rockland is a good example — what had been a circa-1950s retail strip with drug, hardware, and clothing stores (and a Woolworth’s that still had a lunch counter) is now an array of museums, curio shoppes, and fancy restaurants. The harbor, once filled with working fishing boats, is now filled with sailboats and yachts.

    Southern Maine is *very* Progressive — it’s now to the political left of Massachusetts — there are people who would like to see the lobster industry eliminated. Sadly, there is no shortage of people in the state who support the DIE foolishness currently in vogue at Bates and elsewhere throughout the State of Maine.

    What’s worse, they are the people with college degrees (and often grad degrees) while the traditionally conservative Mainers never went to college. This is the dynamic which I believe will eventually doom higher education as we know it — a significant percentage of the population (about half nationally) that doesn’t value it *and* holds it in contempt because of the DEI foolishness. They are going to continue to be willing to be taxed to support it???

    “About one in ten students reported being disciplined or threatened with discipline by college administrators.”

    That’s 10%. And if you figure that each student had at least two friends who were told about the incident, that becomes 30%.

    So you have about a third of the alumni (likely more) personally knowing someone who had been either disciplined or threatened with discipline for saying something someone didn’t like. The consequences of that could come back to bite institutions in the future.

    For example, as I-95 approaches Waterville (ME), it makes a hard jog to the left (west) and then crosses the Messalonskee Stream on a long bridge that is truly terrifying in Black Ice conditions. The road really should have gone straight…

    The initial plan was to go straight — and go straight through the campus of Colby College. Colby alumni, in the legislature and elsewhere, rallied to Colby’s defense and I-95 was re-routed, also adding about three miles to the travel distance between Augusta & Bangor.

    Colleges are not generating that form of alumni loyalty anymore. Students may bite their tongues at Bates so they can graduate, but what memories will they be taking into the future? The interstates are built, but something similar will inevitably come along in the future and the colleges will find that they simply don’t have the alumni loyalty that they once did.

    And who’s going to vote to continue the taxes that are necessary to fund the higher ed largess???

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