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October 26, 2018+Julie Voorhes
+Campus Policy+Campus Climate

Student Opinion on Campus Speech Rights: A Longitudinal Study

Recently, arguments over campus speech rights have shifted from questions like, “who is responsible?” or “what is to be done?” to “is there a real problem at all?” Some have argued there is no real support for suppression of speech on college campuses and, in their telling, the narrative that students self-censor or silence others is a fiction intended to delegitimize social justice activism and divert attention away from legitimate concerns (e.g. here, here).

In order to explore contemporary student attitudes on free expression, and whether (how) they’ve changed over time, Professor of Government Marc Lendler and I conducted a study drawing from two random samples of Smith College students. The first sample is from a published study (Dow & Lendler 2002) conducted in 2000. The second sample is from an email survey to Smith students, with 703 participants.

Most of the questions from the 2016 sample replicated those from the 2000 survey, although there were some additional questions added for comparison with other, more contemporary, national student surveys. Here we present some of the central findings. Other results, and a more detailed methodological description, are available in the full article (here).

Red Speech, Blue Speech

As a result of our experiences at Smith as members of the campus community, we began this survey under the assumption that we would observe increased skepticism towards free speech rights in 2016 relative to 2000. Yet neither of us anticipated the magnitude of the changes we observed.

The 2000 survey was undertaken to test the hypothesis (usually made as an accusation) that a predominantly liberal student body, such as the one at Smith, would be especially likely to censor “right” (conservative) viewpoints. The study authors used paired questions about right and left speech to measure the likelihood of students being inclined to use authority to restrict expression. One pair asked about the right of students to put:

A. a defaced American flag, and B. a Confederate flag, on their dorm window.

In the 2000 survey, the responses were relatively even-handed. In 2016, this was no longer the case:

There are similar indications of the sharp increase in opposition to forms of right-aligned speech given in the article.

Support for Platitudes Decreases

One consistent finding of those who have written about public opinion and free expression is that there is wide support for abstract formulations of free speech norms, which falls off as the questions move towards more concrete controversies. Responding positively to abstractions is cost-free and reflects what most respondents see as the proper “good-citizen” answer. The 2000 and 2016 surveys both posed some abstract questions. Dow & Lendler’s earlier survey showed Smith students fitting the pattern of the public at large: significant support for the norms of free expression when put in abstract form, and fall-off when the questions pose hypothetical controversies. In 2016, there is still a fall-off when the questions become more specific. But perhaps the most startling change in the 2016 survey was the large decline in support for even the most generalized phrasing of norms regarding speech rights:

Epistemological Closing

The least surprising change in the 2016 survey is that there has been a sharp movement to the left in the political consensus among Smith students. Since 2000, the number of self-described “moderates” has been reduced by half, the number of students calling themselves “liberal” has fallen by more than half, and the number identifying as “strong liberals” has more than quadrupled (to 63% in 2016). Studies suggest that a similar trend has held among faculty over this period, especially at schools like Smith. But of course, this would only have significance for a survey on speech rights if those who self-identified as “strong liberals” also happened to be more inclined support suppression of conservative views. This was emphatically not the case in 2000. In fact, students who identified as “strong liberals” were the most supportive of all controversial expression, including right-aligned speech, while support for censorship was strongest among “moderates.” By 2016, this dynamic was reversed: Let us return to the “flag-in-the-window” question referred to above: When responses are cross tabulated with ideology, “strong” liberals today are shown as much more likely than in 2000 to permit the defaced American flag in a dorm room — and by an almost equal amount, are far less likely to tolerate the Confederate flag.

Mobilized Identities

A similar trajectory has occurred within some identity-based subgroups. The 2000 study found, for instance, that students identifying themselves as something other than heterosexual were the most supportive of speech rights across the board – they were even especially willing to tolerate speech directed against their own group. By 2016, this was reversed, and the change is not small. Dow & Lendler (2002) created a “general toleration index” and found non-heterosexual students to be 20 points higher on that scale (more likely to choose the civil-libertarian response) than heterosexuals. In 2016, the gap between those two groups on various questions was 10-15 points in the opposite direction.


In the strictest sense, all this survey measures is the movement of student opinion at Smith. Again, some broad national surveys of student views on speech rights are more ambiguous, prompting skeptics to argue that the campus speech “crisis” is a fiction. Whether this survey describes a “crisis” may just be a semantical issue. What it does clearly demonstrate is a sharp decline in the priority Smith students give to free expression in relation to “social justice” concerns, and an escalated skepticism about speech rights among those who describe themselves as “strong” liberals. There is no reason to suppose these tendencies are particular to Smith. Indeed, even if the results here are typical only of elite colleges and universities, they represent an important and, in our view, worrisome development. These schools provide a disproportionate amount of tenured and tenure-track professors, opinion setters, political activists, and — especially important for the subject of this survey — members of the legal community. Previous literature on public opinion and toleration has postulated that either education or social learning would enhance public support for civil liberties. That no longer seems to be the case. Students come to Smith prepared to accept censorship in the service of causes they support, and then have those views reinforced by community consensus. Citation:
Voorhees, Julie & Marc Lendler (2018). “Student Opinion on Campus Speech Rights: A Longitudinal Study.” Social Science Research Network. DOI: 10.2139/ssrn.3239686.

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