Cards on the table: there is no university free speech crisis, support for free speech is not declining, and campus SJWs are not running amok.
Just don’t try telling the alarmists that. Over the last three or four years, a rising tide of hysteria has swept through media, the political establishment, and the academy itself over the threat that political correctness poses to free speech on campus. Led by a brigade of so-called Social Justice Warriors, campus Jacobins are using the language of “diversity” and “tolerance” to snuff out free and open inquiry.
That’s the claim, at any rate. So let’s set aside for a moment the curious silence of these same alarmists when it is the political Right (and not the Left) doing the snuffing. What should really interest us is the validity of their charge: Is there a crisis on campus? Are young people turning their backs on free speech?
The most comprehensive data on these questions comes from the United States, where about 22 million undergraduate students are enrolled in some 4,700 colleges and universities. According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), there were 29 attempts in 2017 to disinvite or block an invited speaker from speaking on campus. Twenty-nine…and most of those attempts failed. The numbers were higher in 2016 (43 attempts were made), but the average over the last five years is just 31. Out of a country with 4,700 schools. And not only did most of those attempts at blocking speakers fail, but those that did succeed were more likely to come from the Right, not the Left.
So much for blocking speakers, where the truth doesn’t seem to live up to the hype. But what about campus speech codes? They’re all the rage right now, we’re told, put in place by cowardly administrators desperate to placate the social justice Left. Again, the hard numbers throw some cold water on that notion. The number of US colleges and universities with formal speech codes has declined every year since 2009, including a seven percent drop last year alone. Let me put that another way, just so there’s no confusion: when it comes to formal speech codes, things are getting better on campus, and have been for some time.
“Okay, whatever” (I can hear the alarmist saying), “this doesn’t change the fact that young people today are turning their backs on free speech.” But again, this is simply not what the data shows. Now I will concede from the start that it is exceedingly difficult to gauge public support for free speech. Social scientists use all sorts of tests and measures to get at the question (you can read more about them here), but none are perfect. Nonetheless, one of the most respected and comprehensive such attempts is carried out by the US-based General Social Survey (GSS), which has been asking about free speech since 1972.
Called the “Stouffer Questions” (after their original author), these questions ask people to imagine that someone in their community – an anti-American Muslim cleric, a militarist, a racist, a supporter of homosexuality, etc. – wants to give a speech, teach in a local school, or have his or her books carried in the public library. Should that person be prohibited? Should the speech be censored, the teacher fired, or the books banned? The idea is to test, when push comes to shove, just how tolerant of potentially offensive speech Americans really are.
As it turns out, they’re pretty tolerant, with healthy majorities answering “no” to most of those questions. But here’s the important part for our purposes: not only are Americans in general tolerant of offensive speech, but those aged 18 to 34 are the most tolerant. Don’t take my word for it; play around with the GSS’s data for yourself (links to this and all other claims can be found in the online version of this article). Switch around the Age filter and test the various questions. Young, college-age Americans are more likely to oppose restrictions on free speech than every other age group in the country, and in some cases by a considerable margin. The only exception is with racist speech, which young Americans are less likely to tolerate than their elders. But even there, the difference is just 4% below the national average – a far cry from a generational crisis.
There’s more. Not only are young people more tolerant of offensive speech than any other age group, but young people today are more tolerant than they have been at any other point since the GSS began asking the Stouffer Questions over forty years ago. In other words, young people are actually growing more supportive of free speech over time, not less.
Other surveys tell a similar story. The alarmists like to ignore longitudinal data or comparisons between age groups because it complicates their case. They want a simple story, preferably featuring eye-catching anecdotes that involve censorship or language policing. Those anecdotes are real, as recent events at Wilfrid Laurier University and Middlebury College illustrate, but anecdotes do not constitute a crisis. That takes data, and the data is not on their side.
(My general piece of advice: the next time someone presents you with some shocking statistic purporting to show how students today have turned their backs on free speech, be sure to ask them compared to who and compared to when. Unless they can answer both those questions, interpret their statistic with extreme caution.)
A final note. It is difficult to divorce this free speech hysteria from the larger populist moment in which we all seem to be living. The alarmists imagine themselves to be battling a pack of smug “diversity-obsessed” elites. In reality, it is those who have historically tended to hold the least amount of power in society (e.g. women, black and indigenous Canadians, LGBTQ) who bear the brunt of their attacks. That’s an unfortunate fact, and one that perhaps merits some reflection.
Free speech is integral to the academic project and must be safe-guarded, but there is no reason why we cannot do so with compassion, respect, and (I would hope) a full command of the facts. That would indeed be a conversation well worth having.
Jeffrey Sachs teaches in the departments of History and Politics, where he specializes in Islamic and Middle Eastern politics.