Self Censorship- The Real Threat to Free Expression on Campus

Buck Goldstein
Entrepreneur in Residence and Professor of the Practice UNC-Chapel Hill

One of the first systematic analyses of free expression on college campuses in the era of social media was released on February 5 at UNC-Chapel Hill. Professors Jennifer Larson, Mark McNeilly, and Timothy J. Ryan surveyed almost 1,100 students on issues related to free expression and whether the university fosters open dialogue on the important issues of the day. 

The results yet again suggest a serious problem—but not the one that is typically described by the pundits. As it turns out, students at this center-left campus feel relatively free to express their opinions in the classroom without fear of retribution from their professors, and there is little evidence of professors using the classroom as a platform for their own political views. But there is another, more subtle impediment to free expression that emerged in the data: two-thirds of the respondents reported they self-censored to avoid hurting their standing among peers. Conservatives reported the highest concern about peer judgment, but the percentages were above 50% among both liberals and moderates.

Student self-censorship is worrisome but not surprising to those of us who work on college campuses. Professors have been engaged in the same behavior for some time, with young professors advised by their mentors to avoid political controversy at least until they receive tenure. One senior UNC professor with conservative views recently told me there is no upside to a faculty member advertising right-leaning political views inside or outside the classroom.

The relatively new concept of psychological safety has also raised a host of new constraints. What has traditionally been considered healthy debate—arguably the foundation of university education is now viewed by a minority of students as creating an “unsafe” learning environment. A notable minority of students believe certain topics should be avoided if they cause intense discomfort. Professors can reasonably decide that the rewards for raising controversial topics in the classroom are simply not worth the risk of unintended fallout. In such a situation, the avoidance of controversial topics is completely understandable.

Another finding of the UNC free expression survey at least partially explains the root of the problem—lack of empathy. Twenty-two percent of liberal students and 14% of conservatives think the campus would be better off without their political opposites, a startling expression of political intolerance. More than 25% of students endorse blocking a speaker they disagree with, at least under certain circumstances. Political differences are no longer just intellectual; they’ve become intensely personal.

The impact of social media was outside the scope of the UNC study but obviously merits further inquiry. My suspicion is self-censorship among students and controversy avoidance among faculty has become more prevalent since it has become possible for anyone to express anonymously contrary and often hostile views to an extraordinarily broad audience—to take the debate out of the protected space of the classroom and onto the rougher terrain of the internet.

There is no silver bullet to address the subtle barriers to campus self-expression or the societal forces that encourage them. The UNC survey must be viewed as the beginning of a data-driven conversation across all of higher ed on how to encourage open and unfettered dialogue in a society that is trending in the opposite direction. Hard data on faculty censorship of classroom conversation is needed to complement the work already done with students.

My colleague, Professor Eric Mueller, suggests the best solutions to change the climate for students will probably come from the students themselves. They should be encouraged to own this problem and come up with initiatives that balance the competing needs for free expression and psychological safety in the environment in which they live and learn. 

Similarly, faculty must acknowledge the pressure to avoid classroom controversy that is increasingly part of the culture on many college campuses. They should also acknowledge the slippery slope created by the concept of psychological safety. Squaring a broad conception of safety with open and robust conversations on difficult issues is a thankless but necessary task. Finally, empathy must be added to the equation. At the heart of any great university is the democratic art of agreeable disagreement. Modeling such behavior both inside and outside the classroom may be the best antidote of all to student and faculty self-censorship.


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