If you follow higher ed punditry, you’re likely to get a sense that the U.S. is experiencing a crisis of self-censorship—particularly on college campuses. A recent New York Times op-ed, for example, trotted out an oft-cited study purporting to show that Americans—and particularly college students—suppress our opinions out of fear of social consequences. This free speech crisis or self-censorship crisis garners scores of column inches and is regularly described as nefarious, pervasive and new.
From our perspectives, that doesn’t track. As a Gen X professor who came through school at a time when self-censorship was called “the closet” and a Gen Z college senior who facilitates peer-led conversations at a politically active university, our own experiences with campus discourse illustrate the extreme limitations of surveys about student self-censorship. These surveys tell us that people don’t always speak their minds—but they say little to nothing about when, why or how people are curbing their speech—and as a result do not tell us whether there is truly a problem, much less the nature of that problem.
Elizabeth Niehaus, a professor at the University of Nebraska and a fellow with the University of California’s National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement, looked deeper than the headline-grabbing surveys. While prior research has hinged on unclear, survey-style questions sent out in mass, Niehaus instead used a combination of surveys and in-depth interviews to explore not only whether self-censorship exists, but why, how and when students choose to self-censor. Her multilevel research brings to light the fact that students don’t simply fall into one camp or the other (self-editors and free speakers). Rather, most students, even those that generally feel comfortable speaking, have different behaviors based on different circumstances.
We believe this kind of research is essential for the core mission of the Project on Civil Discourse, where we both work, and for universities themselves: making space for robust inquiry and dialogue. In order to better understand barriers to this kind of dialogue, we find it helpful to consider three categories of campus behavior that are currently lumped together under the term “self-censorship.”
The first is normative. This is behavior we actually hope students will engage in: offering only relevant comments in class, citing peer-reviewed research rather than op-eds or conspiracy theories, showing courtesy and respect for others.
The second is developmental. This reflects students’ developing skills in expressing disagreement, college students’ developmental and life stages, and their still-developing sense of what kinds of speech are appropriate and welcome in college classes. These actions should be of particular interest to college faculty and administrators. After all, college is education. And if productive dialogue is a college skill, as we think it is, universities should want to know what about this skill is hard and then make space for people to learn it—much as we teach college writing, research methods and numeracy.
The third category is actual speech chilling: students declining to engage in good-faith conversations about matters of academic or public concern out of fear—founded or not—of steep consequences. For example, in a course led by a faculty member who is a veteran, students may self-censor to avoid speaking negatively in class discussions about America’s defense spending strategies in an effort to please the professor: the one who has authority over their grades.
This third category is itself far more complicated than existing commentary about it—which tends to assume a partisan binary, with a liberal and an illiberal orthodoxy drowning out dissenting views. This narrative ignores that even ideological self-censorship can take many forms. Individuals who do not identify with one end of the political spectrum might self-edit to avoid critiques by partisans. Likewise, students on the far ends of the political spectrum could self-edit to avoid being labeled as radical. Both kinds of self-censorship cause students to miss out on valuable opportunities for discourse about important public policy issues.
Fortunately, developmental self-censorship and even chilled speech are the types of problems that universities are equipped to address—but only if they understand when, how and why they are taking place.
In the coming months, we plan to engage students on our own campus in conversations about the types of self-censorship they experience or practice, how that has changed over the course of their education and their perceptions of how freely they can share challenging ideas. Building from the important questions Niehaus asked her students, we are going to seek a better understanding than traditional self-censorship surveys can provide. We plan to survey students from demographically diverse backgrounds and at multiple stages of their academic careers.
What we learn will help inform the kinds of programming we offer in our project, help us develop tools to mitigate the factors that lead to nonnormative self-censorship and help suggest tools for faculty and administrators to lay the groundwork for the kind of free and respectful dialogue that we want to see on our campuses. It starts with a more informed conversation about how college students are handling the challenge of constructive dialogue in a divided world.
Lara Schwartz teaches at American University, where she is the founding director of the Project on Civil Discourse. Harsha Mudaliar is a senior at American University, where she is program coordinator for the Project on Civil Discourse.