Free Speech and Inclusion: How College Students Are Navigating Shifting Speech Norms
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The Harm of Student Self-Censorship: Why Universities Should Promote Diverse Thought

Clare Ashcraft|August 28, 2023

"I'm glad you can think for yourself" became a common refrain I heard in my teenage years.

My dad and I disagree about nearly everything — from abortion, guns, immigration, and climate change to race and LGBTQ+ issues. I used to feel it was my responsibility and moral obligation to reshape his perspective, hoping to illuminate the humanity that seemed absent from his stance.

By the summer of 2020, I reached a breaking point. During a tense discussion about Black Lives Matter, I lectured him on how his views could be seen as racist. But once it became evident that he wasn't going to change his mind, I shut down and stopped listening, despite his attempts to explain his perspective. I wanted a nice liberal pat on the back for calling him out on his racial insensitivity, but none came. I felt miserable.

Everyone seemed to offer different advice. Some told me to give up on him as a lost cause and distance myself, while others suggested I love him as my father and avoid discussing politics. Yet, none of the suggestions felt right to me, and my heartache persisted.

My dad is one of the most intelligent, hard-working, and kind people I know. There's no doubt in my mind that he is a good person, and I wanted him in my life. I also wanted to discuss the issues I was passionate about in my own household with the person I loved. So, I went in search of a third option.

Over time, I realized the flaws in my original approach. It was arrogant to think I could change someone's lifelong convictions in a single conversation. Rather than proclaiming my beliefs as the "right beliefs" and trying to convert him to my worldview, I should've had the goal to first understand. And hopefully, he could return the effort and seek to understand me.

"I'm glad you can think for yourself." A phrase I came to respect. I started interpreting it as shorthand for "Don't ever let someone else control your opinions, including me. I may challenge you, but I won't berate you. I am proud of the ways you are different from me."

With this reverence for viewpoint diversity, I felt ready to step into lively college debates, meet people from different cultures and backgrounds, and learn about other students' beliefs.

Disappointingly, college offered none of that. There were no debates. Classroom lectures from professors veered into political quips that straw manned conservative arguments. When students find it difficult to judge which professors will accept dissent in the classroom, it's safer to stay silent.

I learned firsthand about fearful silence. When a student read the data wrong in a biology class, and the professor said, "Welcome to the Republican Party," denigrating anyone who identified as conservative, I bit my tongue. When a student said she believed gender and sex were different during a discussion on the metaphysics of gender in a philosophy class, and the professor said she was "undoubtedly in the right camp," I withheld my questions and reservations. When a department chair said she didn't want "bigots like Donald Trump" in office and hated when students disagreed with her because they were paying money to learn from her, I quieted my urge to respond. She was right about at least one thing: not only did speaking up have a social cost, but it had a material one.

At first, it was hard to know if I was projecting. I wondered if I felt stifled by self-censorship while all of the other students felt they could authentically engage on campus or possibly did not care about politics at all, but the student newspaper proved that I wasn't alone. In December 2021, my university decided to implement a vaccine mandate. According to our student newspaper's unofficial poll, 81% of students agreed with the vaccine mandate, while 19% disagreed.

I remember picking up a copy of The Chimes from the bin in the library and flipping through the articles on my way to my next class. In an article about how students felt about the vaccine mandate, one line stood out to me: "A large majority of students I talked to who disagree with the vaccine mandate were not comfortable publicly stating their opinion due to fear of judgment [sic] or repercussions from the University [sic], such as their vaccine exemption application being denied."

I whipped my head up and looked around, hoping to see someone as alarmed as I was, but the walkway was empty. It was deeply concerning that a fifth of the student body feared repercussions from the administration, preventing them from sharing their true opinions. Universities are bastions of inquiry and should be places where we search for truth. There can be no learning and no collective search for truth if we cannot first be honest about our starting points. If individuals are unable to express themselves genuinely, how can anyone be expected to think independently?

I chose my university because it was small, affordable, close to home, and the professors I had met were friendly. In the first few weeks, I had seen little evidence of the leftist echo chambers the media warned me colleges had become. I began to think that maybe shouting down speakers and disruptive protests only happened at elite universities.

The article on the vaccine mandate was a harsh reminder that quiet campuses can be just as damaging to the state of academia and free expression as loud ones.

It wasn't that my peers didn't have diverse viewpoints; it was that fear led to a cultural silence that manufactured a sense of consensus. Yet, I heard nothing about the article on the day it was published or during the following weeks. When I read about students' fear of administration, I thought that the administration should be rabid to repair trust with students. Instead, I realized no one was going to acknowledge the problem.

So, two months into my freshman year, I marched over to the Office of Student and Community Engagement and asked how I could found a student organization. I started a chapter of BridgeUSA, an organization I had first learned about a few months earlier that was advocating for political dialogue across differences on college campuses. I didn't plan on starting a chapter. I'm an introvert and wouldn't consider myself a natural leader, but I saw a problem that no one else seemed interested in addressing. And I, still a bleeding heart liberal in some ways, felt obligated to stand up for students who didn't feel ready to stand on their own. If no one was going to gain the trust of these students — students who were afraid that their opinions might cause their university to turn against them — I set out to create a space where they could be heard and all ideas could be shared and challenged as they should be in a university setting.

Universities should take note from my dad and be proud of the diversity of their student body, including diversity of thought. They should tell students, "I'm glad you can think for yourself."

The job of a university is not merely to teach students about their topic of study. Many students will pivot in life and go down unexpected paths unrelated to their majors, so it is necessary that they learn how to think critically and navigate new challenges. If everyone in our society marches in the same line of thought, there will be permanent blind spots, as there will be no vision beyond the heads in front of us.

It's in the university that we craft philosophers, innovators, CEOs, legislators, scientists, and our future thought leaders. Our institutions have the power to build up the next generation and send them out into the world to make it better. Almost every idea widely accepted today was once bold and heterodox. The minute it's normalized for students to fear curiosity, questions, and expression — or worse, find comfort in lying to appease others — any semblance of learning, growth, or progress dies.


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