The State of Free Speech on Campus in 2021

While college campuses embrace diversity, a recent study finds some students feel that diverse opinions on political topics are being stifled.
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  • Many college students are afraid to express their views in the classroom.
  • Surveys show students hide their opinions from peers and professors, and on social media.
  • Free speech activists say open debate is the bedrock of intellectual inquiry.

Colleges in the U.S. are celebrated for encouraging critical thinking and fostering innovation — aims that rely on the principle of free speech. Intellectual conversations are the lifeblood of campus culture. Engaging with brilliant professors and debating complex issues among peers make the on-campus experience what it is. Through these discussions, students learn to transfer their college education from the theoretical to the practical and sharpen communication skills for the real world.

Yet students are increasingly uncomfortable with the complex and challenging issues brought up in classrooms and on campus at large. According to a 2021 assessment of free speech on college campuses commissioned by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), over 80% of the 37,000 undergraduate students surveyed reported censoring their own viewpoints on campus. Most also supported censoring others in certain cases.

Many recent surveys of college students show that a growing majority are unwilling to share their opinions on challenging topics. Most students reported feeling uncomfortable publicly disagreeing with a professor about a controversial topic, expressing an unpopular opinion to fellow students on social media, and expressing views on a controversial political topic during in-class discussions.

Hesitancy among students to speak freely increased between 2020 and 2021. This is mirrored by a growing hesitancy to listen. According to the FIRE report, many college students are okay with silencing ideas they do not agree with. Sixty-six percent support the practice of forcibly shutting down campus speaking events.

Some say the free speech debate in higher education, which in part prompted the creation of the University of Austin, misidentifies the issue. According to Elizabeth Niehaus, an administration professor at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, "The fact that these surveys are used to make arguments about a self-censorship crisis on campus, particularly one that needs to be solved through restrictive legislation, is problematic." Niehaus and others argue that instead "we should strive to understand how students develop the capacity to engage in challenging, potentially high-stakes classroom discussions over time."

In 2014, the University of Chicago created the Chicago Principles," policies intended to protect free speech at the school. The document has been adopted and adapted by many other colleges and universities across the country. According to the principles, while the college "may restrict expression that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment … it is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive."

Students Experience Pressure to Conform or Stay Silent

In 2020, Heterodox Academy, a nonpartisan collaborative of over 5,000 academics and students, conducted its second annual Campus Expression Survey (CES) to measure how comfortable or reluctant students feel expressing their opinions on campus. Between 2019 to 2020, reluctance to discuss controversial topics significantly increased.

In 2019, 55% of the 1,300 college students surveyed said the climate on their campus prevented them from saying what they think. In 2020, the percentage jumped to 62%. Reluctance to discuss politics also increased during the same time period. In 2019, 32% of students were wary of discussing politics. In 2020, the figure increased to 41%.

Last year, nearly 35% of surveyed college students didn't want to talk about the presidential election. Among returning college students, almost half (45%) called sharing ideas and asking questions "more difficult" than in previous semesters.

Nearly one-third worried about reactions from professors, including receiving lower grades. About the same share of reluctant students feared retaliatory posts on social media. The biggest perceived consequence of voicing unpopular opinions, however, was ostracization from peers.

Among students who were reluctant to speak on controversial issues, over 60% feared that other students would criticize their views as offensive. According to the FIRE survey, only about one-third (32%) of students agreed that their college administration made policies about free speech either very or extremely clear to the student body.

Cancel Culture on Campus

Students are concerned not only about their own speech, but also about the speech of invited guests. Colleges invite thousands of speakers to campuses every year, affording students opportunities to hear and question notable thinkers and changemakers. But if the speaker espouses disagreeable ideas, most college students approve of taking aggressive action to stop the event from taking place, according to the latest FIRE survey.

Two-thirds of students (66%) say it is acceptable to shout down a speaker to prevent them from

speaking on campus. Nearly a quarter of students (23%) say it is acceptable to use violence to protest or stop certain discussions.

In a 2018 New York Magazine article, political pundit Andrew Sullivan argued that campus cancel culture has spread far beyond ivy-covered walls. "If voicing an 'incorrect' opinion can end your career, or mark you for instant social ostracism, you tend to keep quiet. This silence on any controversial social issue is endemic on college campuses, but it's now everywhere," Sullivan wrote. "We all live on campus now."

The Spiral of Silence

In the latest FIRE survey, students were asked, "On your campus, how often have you felt that you could not express your opinion on a subject because of how students, a professor, or the administration would respond?" More than 80% reported some amount of self-censorship, with 21% of students reporting that they held back fairly often, or very often.

The spiral of silence theory, proposed by political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann in 1974, posits that because people are social beings, motivated to avoid ridicule, isolation, ostracism, and reprisal, minority opinions tend to be expressed with decreasing frequency over time.

As a result, the opinion of the presumed majority appears even more popular than it is, while alternate opinions appear to only be espoused by a few hardcore deviants.

In the current campus climate, the student groups traditionally considered minorities on campus are actually the most willing to speak out. The FIRE survey found that Black students are the most comfortable discussing race, and nonbinary students are the most comfortable discussing gender and sexuality. Nonbinary students were most comfortable dissenting in all situations surveyed. Nearly half (49%) said they felt comfortable publicly disagreeing with a professor on a controversial topic.

Findings from both the Heterodox Academy and FIRE surveys, as well as Knight/Gallup surveys, suggest that conservative students are the group least likely to say they freely express themselves on campus. Recent student surveys conducted at the University of Nebraska, University of North Carolina, Yale University, and Brandeis University.

The next big report on free speech on university campuses will explore how college students at Iowa's big public universities view censorship.. After the University of Northern Iowa's student government denied a student's request to form a local chapter of Students for Life of America, a national nonprofit that opposes abortion, Iowa's Board of Regents alongside state lawmakers instigated a free speech survey that hit student inboxes this fall.