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Examining Student Self-Censorship on College Campuses

Self-censorship is a growing concern in higher education. In the last decade, professors have increasingly emphasized the threat posed by self-censorship to students’ ability to engage in open inquiry, appreciate viewpoint diversity, and even discuss uncomfortable scientific conclusions. Among professors, self-censorship has affected the ability to pursue controversial research, give lectures, and operate in a cordial faculty environment. Pressure from foreign countries has also led administrators and professors to self-censor.

While some commentators have questioned whether campuses have a self-censorship problem, evidence continues to point toward a growing reluctance, particularly among students, to express themselves openly. On campus, within the larger academic community, and across the nation, self-censorship is growing. The centrality of universities and colleges to democracy, intellectual exchange, and the discovery and transmission of knowledge presents a useful opportunity to further examine the issue.

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What is Self-Censorship?

Self-censorship is not a phenomenon unique to college campuses, nor is it always unhealthy. Different social contexts often limit the range of opinions and thoughts that are acceptable to utter; employers, for example, may reasonably limit staff from expressing their political views to customers and clients. However, in a free and open society, inhibition can be troublesome when found in an institution dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and intellectual exchange. When students in higher education willingly stop themselves from speaking or contributing to an important dialogue, it risks bankrupting the search for truth and undermining the academic ethos, placing the mission of the university in jeopardy.

Throughout U.S. history, the character of self-censorship in the academy has exhibited qualitative differences in its source, motivations, methods, and impact. Examining this history among students reveals the patterns and changes that have occurred in self-censorship’s manifestation in higher education, and the challenges posed to properly analyzing and responding to it.

Self-Censorship and Student Activism in the 20th Century

The United States has a vigorous tradition of student activism. There have been periods when this tradition was under pressure, as when “rising anticommunist sentiment” inhibited “activism from returning to prewar levels” and engendered an era of self-censorship directed by federal, state, and local governments.

Student protests reemerged with force by the late-1950s, with the rise of the desegregation movement, and expanded into the 1960s in a violent eruption across the country. These protests arose in response to the stifling of student political speech and expression, and were influenced by the Civil Rights Movement, feminism, and anti-Vietnam War sentiment. Key events such as the “Days of Rage” in Chicago marked the national impact of student activists as well as the turn toward violence. By the end of the decade, one poll showed that 44% of students “thought violence was sometimes justified to change society.”

Despite the pro-free speech intentions of some student activists, the rise in censoriousness among the group was noted by one prominent professor in a 1969 essay in The Atlantic: “The right of unpopular political figures to speak without disruption on campus; the right of professors to give courses and lectures without disruption that makes it impossible for others to listen or to engage in open discussion; the right of professors to engage in research they have freely chosen…all these have been attacked by the young apostles of freedom and their heirs.”

By the 1970s, many universities began introducing “free speech zones,” which designated specific spaces where students could engage in expressive activities. This trend indicated a larger shift in the source of restrictions and censorship: from the federal government to student activists, and now universities on behalf of students. By the late 1980s, many universities instituted speech codes, such as the University of Connecticut’s ban on “inappropriately directed laughter,” which further restricted protected speech on behalf of students.

In the 1990s, the censorious climate in higher education prompted one professor to “doubt” whether universities and colleges could “permit a constructive, informative dialogue on vital matters of common concern.” Such concerns continued to grow and change in recent years, with the emergence of social media, increased awareness about student anxiety and mental health issues, a rise in political polarization, and even fear of physical violence. Today, self-censorship poses important challenges to free expression.

Social Media

Among the most significant developments accounting for today’s self-censorship are new technologies like social media. As the internet and smart technology continue to blur the lines between the physical and the virtual world, new spaces of tension have arisen among students. For instance, 10% of liberals, 25% percent of moderates, and 43% percent of conservative students were concerned that peers would post their classroom remarks on social media. In another survey, over half of both liberals and conservatives said they “always” or “often” avoided expressing their political opinions online. A further report indicated roughly 31% of students were reluctant to speak for fear of criticism on social media.

As student discussion has moved from the physical to the virtual world; according to one report, at least 58% of undergraduates say that political and social ideas are discussed on social media, rather than in-person. Some universities have surveilled student accounts and imposed disciplinary action for online speech, which also pose a chilling effect on student expression.

Social Pressure

Social pressure online also leads to censorship within the classroom setting. Students not only fear losing their peers’ respect, being ridiculed, or confronted, but also jeopardizing their grades for expressing their views in class.

Such self-censorship is highly complex due to its nuanced social dimensions. As one researcher found, students often avoid speaking their mind to avoid hurting another’s feelings, out of consideration for the classroom demographic make-up, whether they had meaningful relationships in the class, or whether uttering their opinion is appropriate in the classroom setting. For instance, the report found that a student who was knowledgeable of a subject may not speak up in the classroom if he or she felt that doing so would diminish the growth and development of others, thus self-censoring. According to the report, “students made a wide array of references to the broader culture and how that influenced their perceptions about what they should or should not say in class discussions,” such as on politically polarizing topics. For instance, as a separate report found, students were most reluctant to discuss “controversial topics when they were the majority demographic for the issue under discussion.”

Political Censorship

Self-censorship is a problem across the political spectrum. The problem is significantly pronounced among conservative students, who frequently self-censor at higher rates than liberal students. A recent paper from the National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement found that conservative students were more likely than liberal students to report that they “sometimes” or “often” “keep an opinion related to class to yourself because you are worried about the potential consequence of expressing that opinion?”

Yet the problem persists among liberal students as well. According to a recent survey of 500 liberal, 500 moderate, and 500 conservative students, at least 49% of liberal students said they “always or often” refrained from expressing political or social views in class, while 55% of conservative student and 52% of moderates did. Another survey found that roughly 24% of liberals self-censored out of concern for expressing their political views, while roughly 68% of conservatives did. There also exists a gender variable, with over half of liberal and conservative men self-censoring. In comparison, 45% of liberal women self-censor, while 51% of conservative women do.

A subset of politically based self-censorship and social pressure is a fear of physical violence. According to one report, at least 13% of students have said that “violence” was sometimes or always acceptable to “halt a speech, protest, or rally.” Among the student body, both liberal men (42%) and conservative women (35%) place their own physical safety as their primary concern in refusing to speak, according to one survey. As one professor noted in the survey: “You never know how someone will take something you say. When you’re speaking out against their beliefs, they may take it personally, to a point where they may become violent in or out of the classroom.”

Responding to Self-Censorship

In response to self-censorship, a range of options of have been proposed. Some universities and colleges have adopted free expression statements, while at least 22 states have adopted legislation promoting free speech on campuses. Federal legislation has also been introduced to protect free speech on campuses. Meanwhile, organizations focused on higher education have provided tools and suggestions for administrators, professors, and students to help improve free expression on campuses.

Leaders within higher education have also played a significant role, through modeling and fostering dialogues about the significance of free speech and expression and encouraging students to read free speech materials. Arizona State University has begun offering undergraduates a course on the freedom of speech on campuses and in American society, while various alumni groups have also taken action to bolster campus free expression. Recently, a group of leading scholars and public intellectuals have even launched a new university in response to perceived widespread hostility to free expression on many campuses.

Some national commentators have suggested other alternatives, such as encouraging students to place themselves in uncomfortable conversations. Former President Barack Obama voiced his disapproval of censorship on campus in 2015, saying that students should not be “coddled and protected from different points of view.”

Universities and colleges have weathered numerous storms throughout U.S. history. While strategies to combat self-censorship vary, it nonetheless remains an ongoing dynamic afflicting the campus environment and requires innovative solutions to renew a robust environment for free expression.

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