The Real Threat to Free Expression

How young people armed with smartphones became so unable or unwilling in critical instances to talk to each other is a fundamental question for higher education, writes Jeffrey Herbst.

May 31, 2016

The threat to free speech on college campuses -- where intellectual foundations rest on open debate -- has become a crisis, although not the one commonly posited in public debate. Despite some very public protests, students do overwhelmingly favor free political speech. However, ironically, undergraduates -- the major beneficiaries of social media -- are actually the primary enemies of other forms of expression, in part because of the way conversation occurs on the platforms that they live on.

How young people armed with smartphones became so skeptical of expression and what to do about it is a fundamental challenge for higher education. The answer will be to change the discourse from what to allow to what to listen to.

When observers talk about expression on campuses, they commonly focus on the highly publicized, mistaken actions of administrators who, among other things, fail to prevent disruption of lectures or disinvite controversial speakers. There have indeed been several high-profile flashpoints that many people have pointed to as emblematic of the free speech dilemma on campuses. For example, in early April, protesters at the University of Pennsylvania prevented CIA Director John Brennan from finishing speaking, yelling “Drones Kill Kids” and “Black Lives Matter.”  Journalists now have a routine graduation watch to see which speakers are disinvited due to concerns about student pressure. 

However, with about 4,000 colleges and universities in America, almost any story can be told from the examples of a few institutions. To better understand the actual state of free expression in higher education, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Newseum Institute commissioned the Gallup Organization to conduct what is undoubtedly one of the most comprehensive surveys of college student attitudes toward our foundational freedoms. A total of 3,072 students from 32 four-year colleges were interviewed, and 2,031 adults also were surveyed to provide comparative data.

In our just released report, we find some encouraging news. Most college students (73 percent in our survey) actually are confident about the security of free speech, and even more (81 percent) believe that the free press is secure. Seventy-eight percent of college students believe their campuses should strive to create an open environment where they are exposed to many different types of speech and views. Seventy-two percent say that colleges should not restrict political speech even if it upsets or offends certain groups. Students at public and private universities hold these views in equal proportions.

Administrators and trustees, especially in moments of campus crisis, should know that some very solid, albeit sometimes quiet, majorities oppose limits on political speech on campus. They should be confident that making sure controversial speakers are not disrupted and inviting a range of speakers is not only the right thing to do but also what most of their students actually want.  Mobilizing support for free political speech on college campuses may actually be easier than commonly assumed.

However, in this same survey, we found that today’s college students favor restrictions on free speech when it comes to slurs and language that is deliberately upsetting to some groups. Sixty-nine percent favor limitations on this kind of speech, while 63 percent support policies that restrict the wearing of costumes that stereotype particular groups. Notably, all student subgroups – including whites, men and Republicans -- support restrictions on slurs. 

Other evidence reinforces the observation that students are most concerned about what they say about each other. In April, we gathered 50 current college student leaders and journalists at the Newseum to talk about issues around free speech to add some texture to the survey findings. The discussion, driven by the students, focused mostly on how students could balance speech and concerns about inclusivity and diversity. The students didn’t even mention speakers or graduation controversies. The actions of administrators hardly figured. Rather, these students -- the first generation raised on social media -- were most concerned with how honest efforts to debate serious ideas too often were accompanied by frequently anonymous speech that felt directly threatening, derogatory and hurtful.

Unfortunately, students appear to want to realize their desire to have a civil, inclusive conversation by imposing restrictions on speech that contravene the First Amendment. For example, students are divided on whether reporters can be prevented from covering protests or public gatherings because the press will be unfair (49 percent say yes), the protesters have the right to be left alone (48 percent), or the protesters want to tell their own stories on the internet or social media (44 percent). And 54 percent agree that their campus climate is such that some people are prevented from saying things that might offend others. They appear to be comfortable with that level of self-censorship.

Much of the problem in how students talk to each other has to do with social media. Of course, current students understand the positive aspects of social media: 88 percent agree that social media helps people effectively express their views and be heard, and nearly the same number (86 percent) believe that social media allows people to have more control to tell their story. African-American students are slightly stronger believers in social media, with 93 percent stating that digital platforms allow people to effectively express their views and 95 percent concurring that the new technologies allow people greater control over their story.

However, the group dubbed “digital natives” is also very unhappy about aspects of social media. Only 41 percent believe that the discussion on social media is usually civil, and 74 percent say that it is too easy to say things anonymously. African-American students are even less likely to describe dialogue on social media as civil (36 percent), and even more likely to think that anonymous comments are too common (80 percent).

Thus, the real challenge to free speech on campuses is that students seem unable or unwilling in critical instances to talk to each other, especially on the digital platforms that are closely associated with their identities. That has led them down the dangerous path of being too willing to endorse and even demand restrictions on the very speech they are trying to exercise in the service of their own ideas and causes. It is this system of informal censorship that is the most significant challenge to the idea that campuses might still be marketplaces of ideas.

What we need is an earnest effort to create civility and inclusivity that respects those basic guarantees. We should start where the problem is most obvious:  anonymous social media. Of course, anonymous speech is protected speech and should not be censored. However, that does not mean that it has to be acknowledged. 

Our message should be incessantly to everyone, starting with young people, that the superior solution on a campus (and in society) is not to try to censor anonymous speech but rather to ignore it. Students should not pay attention unless the author is willing to put a name on it. Our society still has enough social capital that a great amount of obnoxious speech will probably disappear if the author has to be listed to have an audience.

Of course, anonymous violent threats have to be investigated, but the generation that has been raised on the Internet should be taught that credibility and audience can only be gained with a name. Eventually, we should equate anonymity with hardcore pornography: something that our laws permit but which our society is not particularly proud of and which is not socially acceptable in a great many circumstances. Some people may be willing to say obnoxious things with their name displayed, but that is their right. 

Over time, progress in fighting some forms of anonymity has been made. The comments section of many newspapers have gradually evolved to require names.  Twitter has begun to offer verified accounts. Margaret Sullivan, as public editor of The New York Times, waged an important campaign against anonymous sourcing that was sometimes little more than gossip in what was known as the paper of record.

In addition, we should constantly try to highlight positive examples of how people discuss controversial issues with each other. For instance, the Newseum, in conjunction with the Knight Foundation, is sponsoring a project on civil discourse on college campuses. We will be recruiting student teams from across the country to tell, via video (a preferred medium for young people), how their institution handled a controversial issue in a manner that did not impinge on free expression.

Since the advent of the smartphone and social media, too often the adults have given up trying to teach students about conversation because they feel themselves to be digital imposters. However, the ability to manipulate a device should not be confused with comfort with the conversation it enables. The students are saying loudly and clearly that they do not like the tone of much of social conversation. But the atmosphere of informal censorship that seems to pervade many campuses does not align well with the purposes of higher education. By emphasizing what should be listened to and stressing positive examples of difficult conversations that do not impinge on free speech, we can achieve the ambition of campuses to be exemplars of free speech for our society.



Jeffrey Herbst is president and CEO of the Newseum, in Washington.


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