Is the Lack of Support of Free Speech on College Campuses a Sign of a Bleaker Future?

The results of a survey in a recent Washington Post article bring more bad news for those of us fighting for free speech. The survey shows that many of our college students simply either do not understand or do not support the notion of free speech. Though I do not have the longitudinal work to confirm this, it seems to me that such anti-free speech attitudes are on the increase.

Here are some highlights, or rather lowlights from this survey. More students believe that the first amendment does not protect free speech than those who believe that it does (44% v. 39%). About the same number of students believe that it is acceptable to shout down a controversial speaker so that the audience cannot hear the speaker as those who believe that the audience has a right to hear the speaker (51% v. 49%). Perhaps most disturbing is that about one in five students accept the use of violence to disrupt a controversial speaker. One in five!!!!! These are the future leaders of our society, folks.

I wish I could say that I am surprised by findings like this. However, given the previous work on the pervasiveness of academic bias, I am not. As I have argued before, students are not taught to critically think and consider the perspectives of others, and that has helped to feed the anti-free speech sentiments on our campuses. If this dynamic does not change, then we should expect the anti-free speech attitudes of students to get worse over time.

I look to some of my research on cultural progressives to gain some insight into the motivation of these students. While the students may not emphasize cultural progressiveness in their radicalism, there are tenets of cultural progressiveness in the identity focus of some of these students. My questioning of these cultural progressives did focus on their attitudes to the Christian right but many of those respondents envision religious and political conservatism as identical. Given that, I think many of the ideas they expressed are still relevant to this topic as these students often appear to be lashing out at cultural and social conservatives.

There is much I learned about progressive ideology from my respondents. But two of the biggest lessons may be how much contempt they hold for those with the ideas they disagree with and how much they fear losing power to their political enemies. For example, several of them commented about how the average conservative voter is being manipulated by leaders to act in ways that do not work in their own interest:

Their theology has been hijacked by right-wing politicians for their right-wing political agenda. … I’m sorry they have sacrificed valid beliefs for simple-minded rigidity, and I’m sorry they have been co-opted or hijacked for war, guns, anti-woman positions, etc.

A hypocritical money-making political machine pushing an agenda of bigotry and intolerance on undereducated people, against their best interest.

They want to impose their irrational concepts (dogma, theology) on other people. They let their leaders, who I think may often be corrupt, lead the members against their own best interests.

This supports the idea that those who do not subscribe to the ideology of those in the anti-free speech movement are being duped. Members of this movement can justify stopping the speech of those who will mislead the simpleton poor and Christians. It is a paternalistic attitude, but I doubt that those with this attitude recognize that fact.

Yet there is also fear among my respondents. They fear that their political opponents will ruin the country if we allow them to use their speech to take it over. I picked up plenty of fear in the comments of several of my respondents.

They are as much of a threat to American freedoms and ideals as any foreign enemy. They have infiltrated every facet of American society and politics from the grassroots level to the White House, more often than not in violation of our Constitution.

They threaten our founding principles, modern thought, and intellectual progress. They are Enemy #1 of all of humanity. They are worst than Al-Qaeda because they have captured the American Flag and the word “patriotism” to hide their destructive agenda.

… are hate-mongers whose beliefs promote poverty, sickness and loss of empowerment for many while privileging the few who share these hate-mongering beliefs.

I believe that this fear drives many people to oppose the free speech rights of their fellow citizens. They believe that if they allow their political enemies to have free speech rights, they may use those rights to bring back oppression. Their “resistance” to the current political regime can be seen as noble. Of course having President Trump and the alt-right to personify that regime can feed these fears, but that does not excuse the type of “by any means necessary” attitude that has developed. This is especially the case since more students are thinking that the means necessary now include violence.

I can understand the sort of fears these students may have. But I have fears as well. I fear that we may be at the beginning of a movement towards removing the rights of “undesirables” for the sake of the greater society. I know that many students would see it as a noble thing to remove the opportunity for hate to express itself in society. But, a great deal of harm has been done by those thinking they are doing the right thing. These students may be too inexperienced to realize the full ramifications of their efforts to silence others.

I hate to sound alarmist, but we have to think ahead to the implications of having twenty percent of our country’s future leaders believing that violence is okay for silencing political opponents. Twenty percent is not a majority, but it can form a powerful presence in a political party that gains power. The contempt and fears within those students can result in efforts to use legislation to silence their opponents. I sometimes wonder what were the signs occurring in a society before some dictator or totalist ideology is able to take over that society. Were there attitudes among the young leaders that led to the dehumanization of political opponents? If so, are we seeing that today? No one can predict the future, but there are dangerous trends among many of our students today.

If you are a progressive supporting many of the goals of those in the anti-free speech movement, I ask you to be introspective. Accomplishing one’s political goals is not worth it if the means by which they are accomplished take away the rights of others. Who wants to be part of a movement that possibly leads to future social oppression? Recently there has been talk about avoiding being on the wrong side of history. If these students get their way and use violence to suppress speech, then truly they will one day be seen as being on the wrong side of history.


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2 responses to “Is the Lack of Support of Free Speech on College Campuses a Sign of a Bleaker Future?”

  1. “There is much I learned about progressive ideology from my respondents. But two of the biggest lessons may be how much contempt they hold for those with the ideas they disagree with and how much they fear losing power to their political enemies. ”

    Little wonder, when their political (aka “religious”) enemies have been practicing the last decades consigning “liberals” and “progressives” to the pit of hell, advocating the death penalty for LGBTQ people (and supporting “kill the gays” legislation in African countries like Uganda), and advocating the ideas that the Bible supersedes the Constitution. Reconstructionism is strong, and many in positions of power have declared their support for antidemocratic measures.

    So sure. Liberals and progressives are scared. One thing we know. Conservatives not only advocate restricting our speech, but they actively do so whenever they get into power. Witness the fact that to mention climate change as a government scientist is to invite being summarily fired. Witness the fact that records of ICE wrongdoing in regards to both documented and undocumented workers are being destroyed (contrary to the law!). Or, even, witness Charlottesville. The “free speech” advocates were there with their guns and instruments of intimidation. Protesters were harassed. Some were even run down, injured and killed. Not one of the free speech advocates of racism and nazism were injured.

    Yes, we fear those of you who would use the freedom of speech we hold dear as a weapon to abuse us and take away our freedoms — in the name of “free speech.” With such a history, can we be blamed?

  2. the paradox of tolerance: “Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.” Karl Popper 1945

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