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In a recent op-ed in Inside Higher Ed, Leon Sachs posed an important question: “What if the campus speech crisis is a hoax … and we create a better university for nothing?” In the article, he acknowledged the “dangers of overstating the problem” of self-censorship on campus yet argued that it is ultimately not important whether our understanding of the “free speech crisis” is accurate or not. Pointing to a number of civil discourse initiatives like the Constructive Dialogue Institute and Braver Angels, Sachs argued that the narrative about the free speech crisis on college campuses is ultimately benefiting speech, inquiry and knowledge in part by opening space for new, important conversations on the purpose of the university.

I agree with Sachs that there are a number of positive developments emerging around promoting robust speech and inquiry on college campuses. However, acknowledging only these positive developments fails to recognize that the narrative around a free speech crisis on college campuses has also contributed to a number of serious threats to the very climate of open inquiry that both Sachs and I want to see on campuses.

I don’t think that the free speech crisis is a hoax: that implies a willful attempt to mislead, which I have no reason to think is the case. I do believe, however, that “crisis” is an incorrect and incomplete characterization of what is actually happening on campus, based on anecdotes and problematic survey data. My critique of the existing data on free speech on campus, particularly around the “student self-censorship crisis,” led me to dig into the problem more: over the past three years, my research team and I have conducted 91 interviews with 55 students at seven very different colleges and universities across the country, as part of the University of California National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement Fellows Program.

What we are finding is … it’s complicated. Engaging in conversation about controversial issues in the classroom and elsewhere on campus, with people who may hold very different perspectives and have very different backgrounds, is hard. These discussions implicate complex moral issues, such as who has knowledge, what we owe each other as human beings, what it means to cause harm, who is a legitimate victim of harm and what it means to be held morally accountable for one’s actions. While students may not use the language of moral philosophy to describe their experiences, they still understand and respond to these complexities. My conversations with students have led me to understand the “problem” of free speech on campus as a morally complex pedagogical challenge rather than a “crisis” fueled by censoriousness and fragility.

The most serious threats to open inquiry arising from the (false) free speech crisis narrative are legislative and other policy efforts to curb tenure and academic freedom in higher education. According to PEN America, since January 2021, more than 300 bills have been introduced in state legislatures across the country that implicate issues of academic freedom, tenure and speech in P-12 and/or higher education; almost 30 of those across 16 states have been passed into law. Although many of these efforts focus on P-12 education, Florida and Texas are among those states that have notably passed legislation that seriously undermines academic freedom in higher education. If you believe that there is a true crisis on campus, if you believe that professors are indoctrinating students and squashing their right to speak up, many of these legislative efforts to regulate speech on campus and limit the academic freedom of professors make sense.

Through my research, I have identified another threat to open inquiry stemming from the crisis narrative—the way the narrative itself becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. In our interviews with students, I was struck by the number of students (many identifying as politically conservative, but not exclusively so) who made decisions not to share their opinions in class because they had heard from friends and relatives, on social media, or through other means that people like them could or should not do so. Often this was not based on any particular experience but rather a general sense of a censorious climate on campus. Campus climate is ultimately a matter of perception, and students’ perceptions are based not only on personal experience but on the narratives they are exposed to. If you believe that there is a free speech crisis on campus, that most students are afraid to share their opinions and if they do so they are likely to be canceled or shouted down, holding back your own opinion makes sense.

Finally, focusing on the campus speech crisis narrative distracts us from addressing the real challenges facing faculty, staff and especially students as they navigate the complexities of engaging with controversial issues in and out of the classroom. The crisis narrative has a number of implicit assumptions, including that all perspectives can and should be shared in all contexts on campus; if someone holds back their opinion, that is automatically considered problematic self-censorship. Buying into these underlying assumptions can prevent us from helping faculty, staff and students understand and navigate the actual complexities of deciding when, whether and how to express particular perspectives in different campus contexts.

The point of promoting viewpoint diversity and open inquiry on campus is to consider and understand different perspectives, because that is what gets us closer to the truth. The truth matters, and in the case of challenges to open inquiry on campus, how we understand what is actually happening matters. I would love to believe that continuing to promote a narrative about a free speech crisis on campus is going to lead to a better university, but I see an unfortunate amount of evidence to the contrary.

Instead of accepting the crisis narrative at face value, we should continue to challenge our assumptions and experiences and do what we do best in higher education: research, debate and dig into the complexities of important issues of public concern. That is what will lead us to a better university.

Elizabeth Niehaus is an associate professor and graduate faculty chair for the Department of Educational Administration at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and a 2022–23 senior fellow for the University of California National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement.

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