Professors Back Free Speech

Survey finds strong faculty support for free expression on campus, even for ideas some would consider offensive.

April 25, 2018

Professors express strong support for free speech on campus, even for speech that some may find offensive, according to research published this week in The American Interest. The support for principles of free speech is roughly as strong among faculty members who identify as Democrats as it is among Republicans.

The analysis arrives at a time when free speech issues continue to be debated in higher education. A recent poll found strong support for free speech from colleges and university presidents. Recent polls of students have found that they say they value free speech, but that they may value an inclusive environment even more, and thus may accept some limits on expression. And on some campuses, some students continue to disrupt speakers with whom they do not agree.

The author of the new study of faculty attitudes is Samuel J. Abrams, a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who has raised questions about a lack of ideological diversity at some colleges. He said it was important to see where professors stand on free speech, given all the attention to student views.

Among his findings (from a survey conducted for him by a national polling operation):

  • 93 percent of faculty members agree that "university life requires that people with diverse viewpoints and perspectives encounter each other in an environment where they feel free to speak up and challenge each other.”
  • 80 percent of professors believe that "faculty members should be free to present in class any idea that they consider relevant.”
  • Asked to pick between “an open learning environment where students are exposed to all types of speech and viewpoints, even if it means allowing speech that is offensive or biased against certain groups of people” or “a positive learning environment for all students that prohibits certain expressions of speech or viewpoints that are offensive or biased against certain groups of people," more than two-thirds of faculty members (69 percent) favored the former. Democratic professors were slightly more likely than Republicans to have that view.
  • Two-thirds of faculty members (67 percent) said that students who disrupt speakers on campus should be expelled or suspended. Here, the share was larger among those who identify as conservatives (84 percent) than those who identify as liberals (59 percent).

The faculty members surveyed represent a cross-section of institutions (including community colleges) and disciplines.

One limitation of the survey that Abrams acknowledges is that it is older than would be ideal, with the surveys having been conducted in December 2016 and January 2017. The data are coming out now because they were part of a much broader survey. Since 2017, debates over these issues have grown, but they already existed -- particularly in regard to "safe spaces" -- before the poll was conducted.

Abrams writes that he is pleased by the faculty views, and that he hopes professors do more to share those views with students.

"The data on faculty views about free speech is encouraging, revealing widespread and strong support for intellectual openness, the cornerstone of higher education and social progress," he writes. "Faculty must train students to think, question, debate, and listen to each other, and they clearly remain committed to those pursuits."

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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