Skeptics of the Campus Free Speech Crisis Are Wrong: It Certainly Does Exist


Increasingly in college campuses, speakers from certain viewpoints are systematically shut down or interrupted by student-led protests, sometimes to the point where campus police cannot clear out protesters to allow events to continue. Yet in spite of this, skeptics refuse to believe that college students are stifling free speech.

The "new wave of skepticism" was launched back in March thanks to a long Twitter thread from political scientist Jeffrey Sachs, citing six studies asserting that there is no such crisis of free speech on campus. But data re selective, and according to researchers Sean Stevens and Jonathan Haidt, those studies are looking at the wrong data sets.

In our first post responding to the skeptics, we argued that they went wrong by basing their case primarily on GSS data about the Millennial generation. We explained why the debate hinges not on Millennials but on the generation after them—iGen, or Gen Z—who began replacing Millennials in college in 2013. In this post we draw on five other datasets to show that there are reasons for concern about the speech climate on campus, and there are reasons to think that it is changing since 2015.

Stevens and Haidt address several questions in their study, and come to the conclusion that the skeptics are wrong: there most certainly is a crisis of free speech on college campuses.

We address three questions: 1) Is the speech climate (i.e., willingness to speak up) worsening on college campuses, overall, in recent years? We show that it is. 2) Is there a “politically correct” range of viewpoints on campus? We show that there is. 3) Which side of the spectrum is the bigger threat to free speech on campus? We show that students on the left and right used to be similar in their desire to “disinvite” speakers or shout them down, but since 2013 the right has used those tactics much less often while the left has used them much more often. In conclusion, the skeptics are right to demand evidence for claims about change, but wrong to say that there is no such evidence.

Countering this trend of anti-free speech sentiment taking over colleges across the country is in keeping with American democratic traditions. But how? Is it new legislation protecting speech rights? Or strings attached to funding? What do you think schools can do to ensure that academic debate is not further jeopardized?