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Self-censorship, we are regularly told, is a great evil afflicting our colleges and our society. Multiple surveys show that a majority of college students self-censor, and these surveys are often cited to prove a crisis in campus free speech. A recent survey by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education found that 83 percent of college students reported engaging in self-censorship, a figure reported with dire alarm and a sharp increase from the 60 percent who reported self-censorship in 2020.

But that increase could have occurred solely because the question was changed from a yes/no answer to a “how often” response—and included the 30 percent who said they “rarely” self-censored and the 32 percent who only did so “occasionally.”

Do such surveys really prove a crisis of self-censorship if the responses are so easy to manipulate?

If by self-censorship we mean that someone ever feels reluctant to speak, then self-censorship is an inevitable condition in any free society, and in any free university. The surveys revealing self-censorship among students provide no definitive evidence of repression—in fact, they may actually show strong levels of free speech and diversity on campuses.

A new report from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni makes the familiar argument of a crisis on campus: “Surveys show that students all too often retreat into self-censorship.” Conservative talk show host Michael Knowles writes in his new book, Speechless, “According to a 2019 poll conducted by Echelon Insights for the center-right Young America’s Foundation, nearly half of students aged 13 to 22 ‘stopped [themselves] from sharing [their] ideas or opinions in class discussions’ for fear of reprisal from the enforcers of political correctness. The students have every reason to fear punishment for contradicting leftist orthodoxy.”

This tale of suppression stands in sharp contrast to how the foundation itself titled the summary of the poll results: “Gen-Z Feels Comfortable During Class Discussions.” While 46 percent of students agreed that “I have stopped myself from sharing my ideas or opinions in class discussions,” a far larger number (including many self-censoring students) were part of the 74 percent who agreed that “I feel like my teachers generally encourage students of a variety of points of view to participate in class discussions about government and economics.”

According to Jonathan Zimmerman, the 2020 FIRE survey of students showed that “six out of 10 felt they could not express an opinion for fear of negative reactions from peers, faculty or administrators.” Based on that, Zimmerman claimed that a “majority of students did not feel safe expressing their opinions.” However, the question asked by FIRE in 2020 was this: “Have you personally ever felt you could not express your opinion on a subject because of how students, a professor, or the administration would respond?” There is a world of difference between feeling generally unable to express your views and having once felt like you shouldn’t express an opinion.

A Heterodox Academy survey found that 62 percent of students agreed that “the climate on my campus prevents some people from saying things they believe because others might find them offensive.” Obviously, if a majority of students personally self-censor, everyone should agree that “some” students engage in self-censorship. But even though the questions are asking radically different things, students responded in roughly the same way.

Self-reported self-censorship can be incredibly malleable because feeling silenced is a universal experience. University of Nebraska professor Elizabeth Niehaus, in her qualitative research for the University of California National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement, found “a critical disconnect between how students answer survey questions and their actual behavior and experiences.” One left-wing student whom she interviewed answered “never” in a self-censorship survey but nevertheless gave several examples of self-censorship in class during a one-on-one follow-up, while “many students are afraid to speak up because they have heard that others may react negatively, but they themselves have never experienced this.”

Yet there is no clear evidence that reports of self-censorship indicate a repressive atmosphere. In fact, the opposite may be true. Social scientists have been asking Americans the same question about self-censorship for the past 67 years: “What about you personally? Do you or don’t you feel as free to speak your mind as you used to?” The proportion of Americans who felt less free has increased substantially over the decades: 13 percent in 1954, 20 percent in 1973, 21 percent in 1987, 25 percent in 2005, 27 percent in 2010, 31 percent in 2011, 42 percent in 2013, 48 percent in 2015 and 40 percent in 2019.

These surveys tell us that the lowest levels of self-censorship in America occurred in the spring of 1954 at the peak of McCarthyism. How could a well-documented period of censorship in American history produce the lowest levels of reported self-censorship? Perhaps reports of self-censorship in America are mostly useless as a measure of political repression. Or perhaps reports of self-censorship actually increase in a free society. Perhaps in a free society with viewpoint diversity, people tend to silence themselves to avoid conflict, and the presence of differing views makes them more aware of self-censorship than when nothing is being debated. The worst censorship happens in repressive cultures that internalize standards and suppress dissent to the point where few people report being censored.

An Ongoing Act

The key problem with surveying self-censorship is that there are multiple kinds of self-censorship. One type of self-censorship is a serious threat to free expression, when people are afraid of being punished for their controversial ideas. The core reason why we must defend free speech and academic freedom, even for the most extreme, offensive and stupid speech, is because even rare acts of censorship have a chilling effect that silences a much larger group of people: they cause self-censorship.

But another type of self-censorship is inevitable and essential to any society. Personally, I have stopped myself from sharing my ideas or opinions in class discussion at many points in literally every single class I’ve ever taken or taught. Sometimes I did so in a large lecture class where discussions weren’t encouraged. Sometimes I’d already spoken and I wanted to let others speak. Sometimes I didn’t have a strong opinion or wasn’t sure of the facts. Sometimes I didn’t think the professor wanted to hear my opinion, especially if I disagreed. Sometimes I didn’t want to derail a discussion with my own points. Life is an ongoing act of self-censorship.

None of the self-censorship surveys allow us to distinguish between the troubling forms of self-censorship (when people are fearful of making controversial arguments) and the inevitable forms of self-censorship inherent in any intellectual interaction.

Yet you could fill a book with the pundits bemoaning a crisis of self-censorship based on those surveys. New York University student and FIRE intern Rikki Schlott wrote in The New York Post that colleges have “a crisis of self-censorship,” with proof coming from the Heterodox Academy survey. David Wippman and Glenn Altschuler claimed, “With increasing frequency, students self-censor on hot-button topics, with 31 percent of campus Democrats and 48 percent of Republicans reporting a reluctance to speak their minds in a 2020 survey.” Tom Ginsburg noted, “A recent survey by the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology found widespread self-censorship among U.S. academics.” Jonathan Rauch wrote in The Constitution of Knowledge about the chilly campus climate for free speech and how “polls suggested the temperature was only growing chillier.” But should we believe this alarmism based on inherently flawed surveys?

The fear of self-censorship is even used to justify entire new universities to protect conservatives. University of Austin president Pano Kanelos cited the Heterodox Academy survey on student self-censorship as a reason to argue for why this university is necessary, and Abe Silberstein wrote in Haaretz about the new university, “If 62 percent of American university students apparently believe the climate on campuses prevents free thought and expression, that is enough evidence to convince me a problem other than mass self-delusion exists.”

Some critics contend that the higher levels of self-censorship reported by conservative students are proof of massive discrimination on campus. But Niehaus’s study found that some conservative students fear a censorship they have never experienced because peers and right-wing media tell them they will be oppressed. Conservatives on many liberal campuses experience what any minority group feels when challenging dominant ideas.

The 2020 FIRE survey found that 66 percent of Black students (compared to about 40 percent of white students) said it was difficult to have open and honest conversations about race. Black students, like conservative students, were more likely than the average student to self-censor. Yet no one citing the FIRE survey is asking how we can encourage Black students to express their views on race. More often, it seems, pundits are worrying about how we can get these woke Black students to stop talking about race. So what is the real self-censorship on campus?

Meanwhile, surveys of self-censorship are increasingly being weaponized by the right to justify greater government control of academe in order to protect the supposedly oppressed conservatives. In June, Republican Florida governor Ron DeSantis signed a new law requiring surveys of self-censorship and political beliefs on campus as a tool to do just that.

Self-censorship is a potentially serious problem. But it’s a problem that’s almost impossible to survey, difficult to quantify and hard to prevent. And many of the proposed solutions offered to stop self-censorship can actually promote different forms of self-censorship. The calls by conservatives to punish, defund or control colleges in response to surveys showing self-censorship are the worst responses, but even well-intentioned efforts to address self-censorship have unintended consequences.

Jonathan Zimmerman argues, “Every university should add a line to its anti-discrimination policy on race and gender and sexuality, affirming that it does not discriminate on the basis of political viewpoint either.” The danger of banning political viewpoint discrimination (which is also advocated by Ben Shapiro in his new book, The Authoritarian Moment) is that almost any academic disagreement could be transformed into a discrimination lawsuit, inspiring even more self-censorship.

We can’t make students speak their minds. But we can try to create conditions that reduce the destructive kind of self-censorship and encourage free expression. It’s very difficult for colleges to solve the social pressures from peers that motivated most of the self-censorship found in these surveys. In the 2020 Heterodox Academy survey, 60 percent of the students who censored themselves feared that “Other students would criticize my views as offensive.”

You can’t stop students from judging others without imposing more censorship. But colleges can try to develop a culture where people are both more tolerant and forgiving and more willing to listen and respond to ideas they disagree with. It begins at the top, with presidents who are enthusiastic about engaging in and supporting discussions of different beliefs and who refuse to denounce or punish members of the campus community who express controversial ideas.

The worst kind of self-censorship is a product of external repression. The Heterodox Academy survey found that 23 percent of the students who reported self-censoring feared “someone would file a harassment complaint or code of conduct violation,” which is remarkable considering how rarely any student is expelled for this. But even if this fear is baseless, colleges should educate students about their rights to express their ideas, encourage the expression of controversial beliefs and discourage the idea of “reporting” students with bad beliefs. When people make complaints against students for their views, colleges should quickly dismiss allegations that involve protected expression. An investigation and a hearing can have a chilling effect when it is used to target disfavored ideas. Colleges can also promote centers, classes, discussions, debates and orientation programs about free expression, so that students become more familiar with, rather than fearful of, exploring controversial ideas.

Flawed surveys about self-censorship tell us nothing of significance about what is happening at colleges, and we should reject the alarmist invocation of a survey to prove a crisis exists on campus—and oppose proposed solutions that may make the problem worse. But we don’t need to wait for a survey in order to worry about self-censorship. We can imagine and implement solutions today to the inevitable problem of self-censorship in our classes and in our colleges.

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