July 29, 2023 - 3:30pm

Conservative academics are much more likely to self-censor than their liberal counterparts — but only in Western countries, a new paper has found. According to research by the Harvard Kennedy School, self-censorship is more evenly spread among conservative, moderate and liberal professors in conservative non-Western countries than it is in post-industrial Western countries, which have comparatively social liberal cultures.

In a survey based on over 100 countries, respondents were asked to classify themselves based on two ideological scales, with one ranging from socially or morally liberal to conservative and the other on economics. In non-Western countries such as China, Russia and Turkey, liberal academics represented the minority, but there was no meaningful difference in levels of self-censorship with their conservative counterparts. But, as the table below shows, in the West there is a notable 20-point jump in levels of self-censorship between socially liberal academics and socially conservative academics, who are the minority.

Contrasts in self-censorship index by social values, type of society, and context. Credit: Harvard Kennedy School

Self-censorship is defined as individuals voluntarily and intentionally hesitating to express their personal beliefs and opinions on controversial issues, and concealing their true views from those who may disagree. Notably, researchers found that social conservatives in the West were more likely to self-censor not only in their teaching and research, but also in social media and other public venues. Additionally, researchers found that academics were more likely to self-censor if they believed that cancel culture had worsened, heightening pressure to hew to the mainstream or perceived consensus.

Over the last few years, there has been a significant rise in the number of academics punished for free speech in the West. According to one recent report by FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression), the number of college and university scholars subjected to attempted punishment in the past three years (509) almost matches the corresponding number for the 20 years prior to 2020 (571). Separate research by the same institution found that scholars were being penalised at alarming rates for failing to adhere to liberal or progressive principles and policies at universities, such as following DEI statements and speech codes limiting hate speech.

Western countries have responded differently to the free speech crisis at schools and universities. UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has appointed a “free speech czar to oversee a new regime intended to enshrine freedom of speech that could impose fines on higher education providers and student unions if they prevent speakers appearing without good reason. 

In the US, meanwhile, Republican-led states have introduced a host of bills — 57 in 23 states — aiming to restrict the autonomy of public colleges and banning the teaching of certain material, largely in relation to race, sex and gender. Just last week, for example, the Florida Board of Education approved controversial new standards on how black history would be taught at schools, which included a line about how slaves developed skills for their personal benefit.

“Academic freedom is threatened by growing demands for intellectual conformity and attempted censorship from intolerant zealots,” Harvard Kennedy researchers concluded. ‘The risks to the values of civil discourse, rational deliberation, plural viewpoints, and scientific knowledge by both Left and Right may be gravest in undermining the production and dissemination of knowledge and learning, which are the core mission of academia.”

is UnHerd’s Newsroom editor.