A poll finds that a record number of undergraduates back restrictions
Censorship and cancellation efforts have accelerated on college campuses in recent years. But many still argue over where the support for these policies originates, whether it be the faculty, students, or administrators. A new survey shows that the force of student opinions on campus censorship should not be overlooked, though their views are more complicated than they may appear at first glance.
This week, the Buckley Institute at Yale University released the results from a survey of 802 four-year American college students on their views on free speech, censorship, and other political issues. The survey shows a majority (63%) support diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) statements as a condition of employment at their university. This is just a 4% point decline from their 2022 results. Unsurprisingly, liberal and moderate students were more likely to support mandatory DEI statements compared to conservative students.
Perhaps even more concerning, a slight majority (51%) of students in the survey supported “speech codes to regulate speech for students and faculty”. This is a 10% point increase from last year, and the first time in the history of the survey (since 2015) that an outright majority favoured speech codes. In addition, this is also the first year in which students support ‘shout downs’ than oppose them.
Given these results, it may seem surprising that several major universities are conducting free speech initiatives this year. One interpretation could be that they would like to convince students to adapt to the academic environment by dropping their censorious views. But another reason could be that students’ views on free speech are more complex.
The same survey found that 69% of students considered it more important for their university to “encourage free speech and intellectual diversity” than prevent “offensive or insensitive dialogue”. It’s important to consider the implications of this result in context of the previous ones. For instance, at least 20% of students both support speech codes and believe that free speech is more important than preventing offensive dialogue. How can both be possible?
The most likely explanation is that students simply don’t grasp the tradeoffs inherent to either free speech or DEI policies. It’s a common problem in public opinion surveys that is perhaps best illustrated by surveys on federal spending, where most citizens agree that spending should be reduced but do not support reductions in any of the main programmes.
But the tradeoff between free speech and DEI policies is very real, and students should be made aware of it. DEI initiatives compel students and faculty to espouse progressive views if they want to remain in their university’s good graces. This goes directly against the principles of academic freedom and intellectual diversity that students claim to support.
The results from the Buckley Institute’s survey show that student opinions on free speech need to be reckoned with if we want to restore academic freedom and intellectual diversity on college campuses. While free speech initiatives are a good start, firm institutional commitments must explicitly prioritise free speech over other values, such as DEI. And educators should work to make students more aware of the tradeoffs between free speech and regulations on offensive speech.