Why College Students Self-censor

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Thursday, September 3, 2020


Universities are where free thought and speech are supposed to live. Historically, they have been a refuge for the brightest minds and a place where new knowledge is discovered. And yet, culturally, despite the legal protections offered to universities by the First Amendment, this no longer seems to be the case. Indeed, recent polls and stories show that universities are, much like the rest of America, exuding a censorious environment.

In June 2020, conservative student Adrianna San Marco was fired from the Syracuse student newspaper for denying the notion of systematic racism. She subsequently received threats of violence from her fellow students and, has since, decided not to return to the Syracuse campus this fall. Just a month later, a Princeton Professor of Classics, Joshua Katz, faced potential termination when he wrote an op-ed rejecting a “Faculty Letter,” which called for, among other things, the removal of police from Princeton’s campus. 

Just last week, a College Fix poll reported that many students plan on self-censoring their political beliefs while in the classroom: 54% of self-identified Republicans plan on keeping their opinions to themselves; 35% said they wouldn’t; 11% said they weren’t sure. Comparatively, only 15% of professing Democrats plan on self-censoring, while 68% percent said they would speak their minds on political matters. 

Another College Fix poll, conducted in 2019, found that 73% of Republican students withhold their political beliefs on assignments because they fear their grades will suffer. 

These stories and data beg a question: How is it that campuses have become a place where some ideas–especially conservative ones–cannot thrive? How is it that the home of free thought, in reality, stifles a certain set of viewpoints? 

One way to understand these questions is to look at the one-sided political beliefs found among university faculty; this will aid in grasping why so many campuses fail to protect freedom of expression.

Two studies are also worth mentioning. A 2018 survey of Sarah Lawrence College found that liberal administrative faculty outnumber conservative professors 12 to 1; liberal teaching faculty exceed conservative teachers at a rate of 6 to 1. Another study, conducted in 2014, found that 90% of Yale University’s faculty is liberal; across northeastern schools, liberal faculty outnumber conservatives at an astonishing rate of 28 to 1. 

One might think that, if professors would only leave their politics out of the classroom, free thought and expression would come more easily to students of all persuasions. Perhaps this is true, and it certainly would help – but it’s an impractical standard to require or expect out of all professors; tenure protects many seasoned faculty members from being fired for what they say in their research or classroom. Conservative or liberal, professors are more or less free to say what they want in classrooms.

It shouldn’t be any surprise, then, that college students are likely to self-censor on their assignments or in the classroom. After all, a student’s priority isn’t to make a political stand. Rather, it’s to receive an education and pass classes in a timely fashion. Most of the time, it’s relatively easy to detect where a professor stands politically; if not, it’s easy to assume that they’re liberal (the statistics cited about bear evidence to this point). Most students act pragmatically–they will tickle the ears of their teacher in order to receive a decent grade. 

And this fact, although perhaps unprincipled, is less concerning than the alarmingly vast difference in the number of liberal faculty to conservative faculty. If the ratio between the two groups was closer, students would be far more likely to feel the freedom to speak what they thought. Or, alternatively, conservatives wouldn’t feel stifled on campus because there would be more classes in which the professor was on their political “side.” 

The real battle for free speech on campuses isn’t within student unions or organizations, or even in the classrooms. It begins and ends with the faculty. 

If conservatives can win ground on this front, freedom of expression on universities might just make a comeback.

Ben Haines is a graduate student at Louisiana State University, where he studies European Intellectual History. When he isn’t studying, Ben can usually be found reading or writing on politics and postmodernism. He can be found on Twitter @bphaines.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.


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About Benjamin Haines

Ben Haines is a graduate student at Louisiana State University, where he studies European Intellectual History. When he isn’t studying, Ben can usually be found reading or writing on politics and postmodernism. He can be found on Twitter @bphaines.

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