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23 free expression
February 20, 2020+Timothy Ryan
+Viewpoint Diversity

The Hidden Consensus on Free Expression

For the past year, I have been working with an interdisciplinary team of collaborators to study free expression issues at my home institution, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This week, we made our findings public in the form of an extensive report, now available online.

Our effort is distinctive in that it tries to gather information about students’ on-the-ground experiences in college. Other analyses have tried to speak to the status of free speech in colleges and universities by cataloging firings, speaker disinvitations, and so forth. Or they have asked students general questions, such as about whether “the climate on my campus prevents some people from saying things they believe because others might find them offensive.” These efforts leave a lot of gaps in our understanding of what students experience on a day-to-day basis. For instance, if a student feels the “climate” is problematic, what do they have in mind?

To improve our answers to such questions, my colleagues and I administered a survey to all UNC undergraduates and received 1,087 complete responses. (A random sample of students were offered a $10 incentive to respond, which helped make sure we wouldn’t only hear from disgruntled students.) One important feature of our survey was that we randomly chose one class from each respondent’s Fall 2018 schedule, and ask detailed questions about it. Doing this helps us understand what happens in the typical UNC classroom.

What did we learn? Well, for starters, UNC faculty come across—at least to my eye—as favorably oriented toward free expression issues. Students who identify as both liberal and conservative generally seemed to think well of their instructors’ efforts to include a broad range of views in discussions. Focusing specifically on classes where politics became a topic of conversation, only 2 percent of liberal respondents and 11 percent of conservative respondents disagreed that “the instructor encouraged participation from liberals and conservatives alike.”

In other ways, however, the experiences of liberal and conservative students seem to diverge. Again, focusing on classes that discussed politics, fifty percent of conservative respondents indicated some concern that their course instructor would have a lower opinion of them if they stated their “sincere political views.” Only thirteen percent of liberal respondents had this concern. Seventy-five percent of conservative students were concerned that peers would have a lower opinion of them. Only twenty-six percent of liberal respondents had this concern.

Perhaps stemming from these anxieties, conservative students were more likely to hold their views back. We asked, “about how many times did you keep an opinion related to class to yourself because you were worried about the potential consequences of expressing that opinion?” Seventy-six percent of liberals indicated that they “never” kept an opinion to themselves; only thirty-two percent of conservatives indicated that they never did so. Thirty percent of conservatives said that they kept an opinion to themselves at least six times during the semester. Only two percent of liberal students said so. These are large divides.

Other aspects of the report examine things that happen outside of class. These, too, highlight ways in which the experience of liberal and conservative students at UNC seem to diverge. We asked, “about how often do you hear someone at UNC make disrespectful, inappropriate, or offensive comments” about each of twelve identity groups on campus: men, women, whites, African Americans, Latinos, Asians, Students born outside the US, Christians, Muslims, LGBT individuals, political liberals, and political conservatives. In the ensuing analysis, “political conservatives” really stand out as a target of inappropriate comments. In fact, our liberal, moderate, and conservative respondents all indicated hearing inappropriate comments about “political conservatives” more than any of the other groups we asked about.

Several aspects of our report (including others not discussed here) highlight how conservative students at UNC face challenges that liberal students do not. And the early coverage of our report has focused largely on that series of conclusions. One might then construe us as intending to score a point for a common conservative take on free expression flare-ups that have dogged so many colleges and universities in recent years: that young conservative students face an overtly hostile environment at colleges and universities. As we say emphatically in the report, that reading of what we did is wrong.

A careful reading of our results suggests a hidden cross-ideological consensus on free expression issues. Consider what we learned from various measures assessing willingness to engage with opposing views:

  • We asked whether students from the ideological outgroup are an “important part of the campus community.” A substantial majority of liberal respondents (73 percent) and conservative respondents (86 percent) indicated that they are.
  • We asked whether it is appropriate to obstruct a speaker with whom one disagrees. Noticeably more liberals (19 percent) than moderates or conservatives (both 3 percent) said it was appropriate to do so. But majorities in all three ideological groupings said that obstructing a speaker was not appropriate.
  • We asked whether UNC provides too many, too few, or about the right number of opportunities for students to have outside speakers visit campus and articulate liberal perspectives. And we asked the same question about conservative perspectives. Among our liberal respondents, more said that there were too few opportunities to hear conservative perspectives (37 percent) than said there too many (16 percent). And more said that there were too few opportunities to hear conservative perspectives (again, 37 percent) than said there were too few opportunities to hear liberal perspectives (22 percent).

Looking at patterns like these, it seems wrong to think of free expression on college campuses as a topic that must pit liberals against conservatives. At UNC, at least, many liberals and conservatives seem to want an environment where they can learn about and engage with views with which they disagree. I, for one, hope that students, faculty, and administrators alike renew our efforts to make sure that this hidden consensus does not get lost amidst the noise.


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