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Are liberal college students creating a free speech crisis? Not according to data.

There will always be anecdotal examples of overzealous young people, but conservative hysteria of campus activism is unwarranted.
Image: Conservative commentator Milo Yiannopoulos holds up signs to a crowd
Conservative commentator Milo Yiannopoulos holds up signs on the University of California, Berkeley campus on Sept. 24, 2017. Josh Edelson / AFP - Getty Images

It’s currently politically correct to say college students are “against free speech.” Embracing this belief signals to the left that you’re a nonpartisan rationalist concerned about classical liberal values, while signaling to the right that you oppose “crybully” campus “SJWs” in a time when Republican support for higher education is in decline.

The latest version of this always-controversial argument was New York Times columnist Bari Weiss’s column “We’re All Fascists Now,” in which Weiss claims such divergent actions as writing letters in opposition to campus speakers, or shouting at them when they get to campus, “have become so routine that it’s tempting to wave them off.” Weiss is the most recent to make this case, but in truth her column is just another entry in a long list of attempts to paint college students as “against free speech.”

The only problem with this thesis is: It’s not true. As new and better data on the attitudes of young people toward free speech becomes available, the argument that college students are increasingly against free speech becomes harder and harder to sustain. There will always be anecdotal examples of overzealous and even reactionary young people, but the idea that such beliefs have overtaken a generation is overblown.

As better data on the attitudes of young people becomes available, the argument that college students are against free speech becomes harder to sustain.

For several years now, I’ve cautioned against the tendency to hastily extrapolate sweeping national trends and dire outcomes from a handful of headline-grabbing campus controversies. The first relevant data I came across on millennials’ attitudes toward free speech was a 2015 Pew Center study showing that while millennials (ages 18-34) were more likely than other generations to favor government prevention of offensive public statements about minorities, people with college degrees also were the most likely to support an individual's right to say offensive things publicly.

In other words, we don’t know from that Pew data whether millennials with college degrees are more or less supportive of free speech than other generations with college degrees. What that data did suggest was having graduated from college (or having been to college) correlated with more libertarian free speech views.

Today we have even better data. As Acadia University political science professor Jeffrey Sachs points out, according to a General Social Survey (GSS) dataset, “young people aged 18-34 are the most tolerant of potentially offensive speech and trending upward,” meaning not only that young people are already the most tolerant of offensive speech, but that they’re getting more tolerant. (Sachs points out one exception, which is tolerance for racist speech, where the 18-34 age group is about 4 percent below the national average).

Sachs also breaks down a recent Knight Foundation study looking specifically at free expression on campus, and finds that college students are more likely than U.S. adults in general to support an open environment for free expression. Further, echoing my hunch about the 2015 Pew Center data, Sachs points out other evidence that shows going to college actually makes people more tolerant of offensive or opposing views.

Meanwhile, the “disinvitation database” created by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a watchdog group that promotes and protects free expression on campus, tracks the attempts of students to disinvite or prevent campus speakers. The database contains just 35 disinvitation attempts in 2017, down from 43 in 2016. At this point in 2018, there have been just five attempts, one of which was spearheaded by a conservative campus group. As Sachs rightly points out, in a country with roughly 4,700 colleges and universities, disinvitation attempts — let alone successful disinvitation attempts — remain quite rare.

While it’s true that, as the Pew Center data from 2015 and the more recent Knight Foundation data suggest, young people are indeed less tolerant of racist speech, the bigger picture suggests young people — and especially college students — are very much in favor of free speech. Sean Stevens and Jonathan Haidt of Heterodox Academy, a consortium of academics who promote viewpoint diversity on campus, recently published a compelling analysis of the GSS and Knight Foundation data, arguing that while millennials overall have maintained support for free speech, it’s the iGen (“internet generation”), born after 1995, who show a downward trend in support for free speech over the last 3 years. Ultimately, however, Stevens and Haidt conclude that “young people have not suddenly turned against free speech in such numbers that we see cliffs in the data.”

A “disinvitation database” created by a libertarian watchdog group tracks the attempts of students to disinvite or prevent campus speakers. The database contains just 35 disinvitation attempts in 2017.

The point, then, is that while we can point to some worrying trends worth keeping an eye on, we also have several positive trends in young people’s attitudes toward free speech, particularly college graduates. The question remains, however, whether this data will change the minds of those still claiming broadly that college students are against free speech. I want to be optimistic, but I’m not holding my breath.

I’m not optimistic for two reasons in particular. For one, the attempt to paint college students as “against free speech” is expressly partisan in how it targets students and faculty. That is, while people on the left and the right lament the supposed decline of free speech on campus, they’re placing blame almost exclusively on left-leaning students (and occasionally on left-leaning faculty).

A Heterodox Academy analysis of the FIRE disinvitation data shows that the most successful attempts to shut down speakers have come from right-leaning groups shutting down speech with which they don’t agree, but this hasn’t stopped pundits and politicians from seeing the student left as the gravest threat to free speech.

The attempt to paint college students as “against free speech” is expressly partisan in how it targets students and faculty.

I’ve also pointed out numerous instances of right-wing political correctness that stifles speech, yet the partisan desire — especially on the right — to manufacture fear of a particularly “illiberal left” is an important part of the conservative playbook in the Trump era. This despite the fact that President Donald Trump has openly attempted to use the power of the presidency and the resources of government to silence athletes and journalists he doesn’t like. Data is unlikely to change this attitude.

The second reason I’m not optimistic is that being “anti-PC” is now effectively a form of tribalist identity politics. When I draw attention to right-wing threats to freedom of speech, these counterexamples — whether data-based or anecdotal — tend to threaten anti-PC identity and cause membership to close ranks. In a particularly insightful article on “why fake news thrives online,” media researcher Judith Donath explains that the main function of sharing news on social media isn’t to share information, but to bolster our ties to social groups by demonstrating affinity with the preferred ideas of the group.

As Donath writes, “stoking conflict with outsiders strengthens the in-group’s cohesion,” such that sticking by even well-refuted ideas demonstrates loyalty to other members of the in-group. This makes people less likely to give in, even if counterevidence challenges their views.

The only way it’s possible to see left-wing college students as a group whose power rivals that of the presidency or the billionaire donor class is by embracing the cartoon image of lefty students as little authoritarians.

If we consider the rise not only of anti-college views in popular media, but in organizations that seem to exist primarily to spread anti-college, anti-student and anti-faculty propaganda — like Turning Point USA or Campus Reform — it becomes clear that characterizing the campus left as “against free speech” appeals to large numbers of people who otherwise care little about quotidian campus affairs. Anti-PC and anti-college identity politics align with the faux-populism driving broader right-wing politics today.

Turning Point USA, for example, describes its mission as “to identify, educate, train, and organize students to promote principles of freedom, free markets, and limited government,” but has been caught funneling outside money to candidates for student government, violating college bylaws and forcing student candidates at Ohio State University and the University of Maryland, College Park to drop out of their races. Turning Point also administers a “Professor Watch List,” which targets faculty for supposedly illiberal offenses like studying “white male privilege in the field of physics.”

Because of such propaganda, conservatives who see themselves, in some ways rightly, as victims of “the elite” are able to position themselves as fighting a scary, authoritarian, left-wing caricature. Indeed, the only way it’s possible to see left-wing college students as a group whose power rivals that of the presidency or the billionaire donor class is by embracing the cartoon image of lefty students as little authoritarians, and promoting it despite counterevidence. The political investment in the myth of the authoritarian college student is simply more powerful than even the most comprehensive data analyses on the subject.

Fortunately, there is something we can do to remedy this situation. We can continue to instill in our students the importance of free expression, and we can encourage them to use that freedom to relentlessly correct the record of mischaracterizations of who they are and what they stand for. If we have cause for optimism, it’s because the data do show that the next generation of leaders is up to the task.

Aaron Hanlon an Assistant Professor of English at Colby College. His essays about politics, literature, teaching and higher education have appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, The Atlantic, Salon, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Ploughshares Blog, The Chronicle of Higher Education and others.