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Column: There’s never been a free speech crisis on college campuses


A speaker from UNC's student-organized climate strike leads students from The Pit to South Building to demand changes in the UNC Climate Action Plan on Friday, March 25, 2022.

Have you or anyone you know engaged in self-censorship? A glance at headlines related to the topic suggests yes.  

An opinion piece by The Wall Street Journal poses the question: “Is Self-Censorship Taking Over Universities?" in its headline. Inside HigherEd raised similar arguments in an article titled “The Inevitable Problem of Self-Censorship.”

Research backs up the worrisome headlines. A 2020 Heterodox Academy report found that 62 percent of surveyed students are reluctant to speak up about things they believe.

A guest essay published in The New York Times on March 7 attests to the discouraging climate of college campuses. Emma Camp, a student at the University of Virginia, spoke on her tendency to speak silently and behind closed doors on controversial issues, even as a self-declared liberal.

In her essay, she called for more rigorous debate in classrooms, citing how students may keep their opinions to themselves out of fear of rejection from their peers or a negative impact on grades. A letter to the editor in response to Camp agrees, arguing that colleges are teaching judgment and intolerance to youth.

These newfound claims that students are engaging in self-censorship are merely the newest mutation of a decades-long debate about the status of free speech on college campuses. Higher education has most dramatically been a target for criticism from the political right since the 1980s, when Allan Bloom published his best-selling book, “The Closing of the American Mind”.

Bloom frames academia as the biggest blight to young minds and to the advancement of free speech. Whether they are concerns related to uncurbed liberalism, post-Cold War fears of Marxist indoctrination or the use of campuses as a center for protest, First Amendment rights have been at the cornerstone of campus controversy.

But despite the rampant culture war and mainstream media coverage of the topic, these accusations are far from the truth. There is no evidence that freedom of speech, especially that of conservative students, is in jeopardy at universities.

Instead, what we see happening on our campuses is normal human behavior and the exchange of ideas, albeit some that are unpopular. The ability to assess what is appropriate to say in certain settings and to foresee disagreement isn't a new phenomenon of "self-censorship."

Furthermore, it’s not unique to higher education.

Being called out for expressing problematic views, especially in public forums, is not “cancel culture,” it is accountability. Insensitivity and a lack of social awareness being branded as “political incorrectness” is yet another example.

Giving a name to entirely normal behaviors allows such behaviors to be politicized and generalized to pertain to a certain group of people — in this case, it’s overly wary college liberals.

College students are in a unique environment in which they are learning to engage with new ideas and, inevitably, encounter intolerant ones. To let intolerance persist is a disservice to the conversations we are having in higher education. But instead, the right has framed shutting down such views as a severe breach of Constitutional rights (although they are happening in a forum of your peers rather than the law).

This is the ultimate hypocrisy of the right’s fight against higher education — verbalizing disagreement is a violation of one's free speech, while marginalized students systemically get the short end of the stick when it comes to intellectual debates. We saw protests against the development of African American studies and more diverse humanities programs starting in the 1960s. We see social justice protests being shut down, often brutally. But these oppressive measures are excluded from the conversation.

The conservative right is not the victim in an archaic and privileged institution like higher education.

In “Political Correctness,” an episode of the podcast "You’re Wrong About", writers Michael Hobbes and Sarah Marshall said the timing of this propaganda is key. Negative ideas about higher education are circulated as parents are particularly vulnerable, sending their kids into the world for the first time. The result is a culture of fear.

It should be no surprise that college campuses are at the forefront of this political debate. Their constituents are youth forming salient political opinions for the first time in their lives, simultaneously learning how to engage in difficult conversations.

Unsurprisingly, higher education is the hill that the political right has chosen to die on.

Like most conservative sentiments, those who propagate the idea that free speech is in danger on college campuses are appealing to the fears of those living in a rapidly changing world. 

Like the exclusivity of college. The growing costs of tuition amidst diminishing acceptance rates. The increasingly mainstream nature of progressive thought within the social sciences. It’s not shocking that higher education has become the target of such politically-charged criticism as a way to cope with these institutional changes.

College campuses are no more detrimental to the idea of free speech than normal society. They are places of difficult conversations, intellectual debate and — consequently — disagreement. 

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To disagree or raise concern is not a sign of restricted freedoms, but rather the intended outcome of debate. And a fear of being held accountable doesn't mean you're being silenced.


Caitlyn Yaede

Caitlyn Yaede is the 2023-24 print managing editor of The Daily Tar Heel and oversees weekly print production. She previously served as the DTH's opinion editor and summer editor. Caitlyn is a public policy master's student at UNC.