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Free expression survey found UNC students are self-censoring their beliefs in class

Free Speech Campus
A recent study on free expression and constructive dialogue at UNC suggests undergraduate students self-censor while in class.

A recently published report on free expression and constructive dialogue at UNC suggests that a significant portion of undergraduate students are self-censoring in class.

The report found that 27.7 percent of self-identified conservative students kept an opinion related to class to themselves two to five times — compared to 18.6 percent of self-identified moderate students and 12.7 percent of self-identified liberal students who did the same.

Political science professor Timothy Ryan, a co-author of the study, said it examines free expression in a new way, through data.

“There’s been a lot of commentary driven by episodes, driven by particular things that unfolded on a campus, a speaker who is disinvited, or a speaker who is interrupted, things of this nature — which just only tell you very little about what the typical experience is,” Ryan said.

Ryan conducted the research with professors Jennifer Larson of the English and Comparative Literature department and Mark McNeilly of the Kenan-Flagler Business School.

The study was two-fold, with a survey that all UNC undergraduates could participate in, as well as in-depth group interviews with members of three politically-active student organizations. 

For the group interviews, the researchers contacted eight UNC student groups and three responded and participated in the study: one conservative and two liberal groups. These interviews were conducted in spring 2019.

The results from the survey and interviews resulted in 12 principal findings that are included in the report. The first finding described the statistics of ideologies on campus of the undergraduates who participated in the survey. According to the report, 30.8 percent of students feel they have become more liberal during their college years, 15.9 percent feel they have become more conservative and 47.8 percent feel their ideological leanings have not changed.

Ideology in the Classroom 

Student ideologies and their expression within the classroom was another focus of the study. One survey question asked, “about how many times did you keep an opinion related to class to yourself because you were worried about the potential consequences of expressing that opinion?” The study showed that 24.1 percent to 67.9 percent of students, varying based on ideology, engaged in self-censorship in the classroom.

Christian Cail, who graduated in December 2019 and was a member of UNC’s Young Democratic Socialists of America, encouraged students to speak their mind in the classroom.

“I’m not personally sympathetic to that, but I can see why people would feel those reservations, but the goal would basically be to really train and educate folks to have really good accounts and responses for things so that they wouldn’t be afraid,” Cail said. “I feel like people talk shit online, but if you really know your stuff and you’re really passionate about it, there’s very little that can’t be forgiven or corrected.”

Senior Devin Lynch serves as the state chairperson for all chapters of Young Americans for Liberty in North Carolina and has spoken to students about expressing their political views on campus.

“I do think that a lot of more conservative students, or even more moderate students a lot of times, don’t speak up in class because they feel their viewpoints won’t be respected,” Lynch said.

The report’s sixth principal finding states, “Anxieties about expressing political views and self-censorship are more prevalent among students who identify as conservative.”

A student response from a group interview in the study said, “I feel like a large number of those conservatives on campus are not comfortable presenting those views for fear of ridicule in class, as well as in the student body, which is a shame.”

Social Media

Social media was also an aspect of the survey, with a question that asked, “During your entire time at UNC, how often have you worried that, if you stated your sincere political views, someone would post critical comments about you on social media?”

The study found that 53.7 percent of self-identified conservative students worried about “critical comments” on social media “at least once or twice,” while 19.9 percent of self-identified liberal students and 40.2 percent of self-identified moderate students had the same concern.

“I think that social media completely changes the game of how people have to conduct themselves in society, I think that extends way beyond politics, but it definitely changes the game within politics,” junior Ali Montavon, co-president of UNC Young Independents, said. “It’s something that you have to think about every single moment basically.”

Ryan said the study could expand in two respects.

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“One is better understanding what kinds of views people are motivated to hold back, what kinds of things they don’t feel comfortable expressing in a pedagogical context,” Ryan said. “And two, better understanding faculty’s perception of all these moments, so understanding how all this unfolds from the faculty perspective.”