Nearly one-quarter of college students are comfortable with using violence to stop a speaker on their campus, according to the 2021 Free Speech rankings released Wednesday by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
The 23% of students at 159 university campuses who thought violence was acceptable was an increase of 5% from the figure in last year’s total.
“It was 18% last year, which we thought was alarmingly high, and we find it very disturbing that number is up and is as high as it is,” FIRE executive director Robert Shibley said.
The country’s top-ranked schools were among the least tolerant in terms of free speech, FIRE found. And it was the message sent by the administration that often proved key, either to wholeheartedly support a wide-open and robust discussion of events and topics or, more often, to send a rather muddled picture of where it stood for, in terms of free speech and censorship, the survey found.
“If college administrators are willing to take leadership on free speech that would be a major factor in a school’s performance,” Mr. Shibley said.
Conducted between February and May, FIRE surveyed 37,104 students to come up with the most complete picture the group has been able to provide of the campus climate since their first such survey in 2020. The survey was done in conjunction with College Pulse.com and is available there.
Claremont-McKenna, a private college in California, edged out last year’s leader, the University of Chicago, to take top honors in terms of having and encouraging a climate that supports debate on myriad topics from race to climate, according to the survey.
The University of New Hampshire, Emory University and Florida State rounded out the top 5 ranked schools for their free speech climate in 2021.
On the other end of the spectrum, DePauw University ranked as the worst school for a free speech environment for the second year in a row. Joining DePauw at the bottom were Marquette, Louisiana State University, Boston College and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
DePauw officials noted that 57% of its students “think it is likely that the DePauw administration will defend a speaker’s rights in a controversy.”
The university is taking steps to underscore its commitment to that value, as well as “inclusion and equity,” said DePauw spokeswoman Mary Dieter.
DePauw is rewriting its “freedom of expression statement while will be finalized this academic year,” she said.
“We want to be a university where all students, no matter where they reside on the political spectrum or any other form of identity, believe they can express themselves freely,” Ms. Dieter told TWT.
While the students at almost all of the schools identify as more liberal than conservative, students across the political spectrum reported self-censoring.
The self-censorship was most pronounced in terms of class discussions and disagreeing with a professor, according to the survey.
“It’s amazing how universal this is regardless of your views on the political spectrum,” Mr. Shibley said. “You really can’t predict the thing that’s going to cause a problem on your campus.”
But students who identified as conservative were more likely to feel uncomfortable voicing their opinions on campus.
The survey showed more than half of them felt that way in every proposed situation, from private discussions in a dorm to class.
Overall, 66% of students felt a heckler’s veto — shouting down a speaker — was acceptable, an increase of 4% from 2020, while only 40% of students were comfortable disagreeing with a professor publicly, an increase of 5%, the study found.
The acceptance of violence or a heckler’s veto to muzzle speech with which they disagree is considerably more pronounced among Ivy League schools than Big Ten, FIRE researcher Sean Stevens said. The question did not measure a person’s own willingness to engage in those forceful forms of censorship, he noted.
The percentage of students saying they were not comfortable voicing their opinion on various issues is particularly discouraging given college campuses should be perhaps the one place where such behavior occurs least often, Mr. Shibley said.
“I don’t want people to get outrage fatigue, but the numbers should be lower,” he said.
The survey found that some topics trigger more self-censorship than others. Discussions about race inequality led that list, followed by abortion, gun control, George Floyd’s death and transgender issues.
The pattern of students at elite universities — which FIRE defined Wednesday as the Ivy League — finding disruptive behavior against speakers more acceptable is also emerging in surveys of top liberal arts colleges, too, Mr. Stevens said.
There are exceptions to both rules. Students at Duke, Emory and Claremont-McKenna were, on the whole, more tolerant toward speakers with whom they disagree than their Ivy League counterparts.
Similarly, at schools where the student body reflects less intellectual diversity, students reported being more comfortable voicing and listening to opinions. This was most telling at Wesleyan University, which is overwhelmingly liberal, and Hillsdale College, which is overwhelmingly conservative, Mr. Stevens said.
• James Varney can be reached at email@example.com.
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