Campuses Increasingly Hostile to Free Speech

Conservative Students Fear Profs, Censor Their Own Speech; Campuses Increasingly Hostile to Free Speech, Especially for Conservatives

A Campus Becoming Hostile To Free Speech

WASHINGTON, D.C. (February 24, 2020) –  A major new study at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill documents a campus increasingly hostile to free speech, especially for conservatives, with conservative students censoring themselves out of fear that expressing their true beliefs might upset their overwhelmingly liberal professors and lead to retaliation or poor reviews, or that they will be ostracized by many of their largely liberal peers, notes public interest law professor John Banzhaf.

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The study concluded that "the current campus does not consistently promote free expression and constructive dialogue across the political spectrum," and that "although students across the political spectrum report facing challenges related to free expression, these challenges seem to be more acute for students who identify as conservative."

Indeed, it showed that students who label themselves conservatives are much more concerned about openly expressing their views with faculty because of a concern about retaliation or poor reviews.

"Most alarmingly," the report states, "the proportion of self-identified conservatives who censored themselves at least once (67.9%) is almost 3 times as large as the proportion of self-identified liberals who did the same (24.1%)."

Students Believe That They Can No Longer Speak Freely

The report, entitled "Free Expression and Constructive Dialogue at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill," also showed that the tendency of the university to make students more liberal in their thinking is about twice as strong as the tendency to lead them to more conservative views.

These new findings are consistent with a Gallup poll showing that most students believe that they can no longer speak freely because of a small minority of speech-intolerant students and faculty.

For example, some 90% of students at Pomona believe that they cannot speak openly and freely.  In that study, 9 out of 10 students said that "the campus climate prevents them from saying something others might find offensive."

Even more alarming, almost 2/3rds of their faculty reportedly feel the same way.

Perhaps an important underlying cause of the recent change in campus climate for speech, and for open and robust discussion of conflicting viewpoints, is that faculties are increasingly and overwhelmingly liberal, and administrators even more so, suggests Banzhaf.

Disparity Between Liberal And Conservatives Professors

A survey of many major universities revealed that while there is a 6-to-1 ratio of liberals to conservatives among professors, liberal college staff members outnumber their conservative counterparts by the astonishing ratio of 12-to-1.

The impact of this huge disparity between liberal and conservatives professors, and also administrators who increasingly run and set the tone at universities, appears to be why so many institutions of higher education now have speech codes which are hostile to free speech and are often unconstitutional, and speech police (now often called "bias response teams") which investigate (and often even do more) students who say something which offends another student or a group to which they belong.

Many such teams remain in operation despite a recent ruling by a federal Court of Appeals that the mere existence on campus of investigatory bias response teams "objectively chills speech," and acts "by a way of implicit threat of punishment and intimidation to quell speech" on campus, even if such teams have no power to discipline, and no student is ever in fact disciplined.

For example, George Washington University [GWU] characterized as a potential hate crime, and asked for police intervention after a referral to a bias response team, when one law student used the word "Jew" in a strictly private conversation with another law student.

Hate Speech Is Not Free Speech?

In a more recent occurrence, upon learning of an off-campus drunken rant about bombing Israel, GWU referred the matter to the police as a possible crime, and also began its own investigation aimed at possible discipline, including expulsion of the student; a punishment which many on campus had called for.

Faculty apparently are also teaching students - incorrectly - that speech which is offense to any group, often labeled "hate speech," is not free speech protected by the First Amendment or academic freedom, and that it is permissible and appropriate to prevent anyone from making statements which even a small percentage of students might find objectionable, even to the point of using intimidation and violence - in which some faculty members have even cooperated.

For example, when conservative law professor Josh Blackman was stopped from speaking at CUNY about "the importance of free speech," Law Dean Mary Lu Bile insisted that disrupting his speech about free speech was itself free speech, and therefore presumably appropriate and protected.

In another recent example, at one state university, a professor physically assaulted pro-life advocates and tore down their display.  Even more astonishing, other faculty rallied around him.

And in a very recent example which went even further, a small group of students at Kent State opposed to ICE physically blocked other students who were seeking jobs from even talking with Department of Homeland Security [DHS] recruiters, even though nothing was ever actually said, and the recruiters were not even from ICE.

University police who were present reportedly did nothing, and the presence of DHS recruiters was analogized to the appearance of the National Guard coming on campus during the Kent State shootings.

Academic Freedom? Universities Are Hostile To Free Speech

Fortunately, courts are increasingly ruling in favor of free speech and academic freedom on college campuses, even to the point of holding presidents and administrators liable when the First Amendment is violated, reports Banzhaf.

Also, he notes, students now have a powerful new weapon to protect free speech on campus in President Trump's Executive Order 13864 (issued March 21, 2019).

Using it, students or faculty can file anonymous complaints seeking a formal federal investigation - which could even lead to a termination of federal funding - if a public university fails to comply with the First Amendment, or a private institution violates its own "stated institutional policies regarding freedom of speech."

The filing of such complaints under the Trump administration could trigger the same magnitude of change in campus speech policies as the filing of Title IX complaints under the Obama administration did regarding campus handling of date-rape complaints, he argues.