By Paul A. Djupe
I get asked reasonably often whether there is a free speech crisis on college campuses. Popular concern for speech on college campuses has been stoked by conservative-leaning media, but those stories are built on actual incidents where speakers have been heckled, shouted down, and even their very presence protested from the start (there’s a near comprehensive list here). Denison has not had such an incident, but could it happen here?
OneTwentySeven was in the field last fall (2017) in tandem with my senior seminar in political science asking questions about commitment to free speech; nearly 700 students responded and the response looked reasonably representative. In a previous post, I found that Denison students are not strong supporters of unfettered free speech. About half of the campus favored a speech code that would define “speech that offends another person as constituting discriminatory harassment and subject to disciplinary action.” But this is where Millenials are these days as Pew Research found – 40 percent of the generation supports government censorship of speech offensive to minorities.
The survey also asked questions that would directly address the subject of the so-called free speech crisis on campuses – what is acceptable behavior in response to a speaker they feel would make offensive remarks. Over a third thought it was the duty of the college not to invite such a speaker. This is sometimes referred to as “no-platforming” or disinvitations and there were a number of those attempts around the nation last year. Sixteen percent thought that shouting that speaker down and drowning out their voice was acceptable. And five percent thought it was justifiable to use violence to stop that person from speaking. That’s less than the 20% that one survey found drawn from a problematic sample, but it’s not zero.
The stereotype that feeds conservative media is that liberal students do not support equal rights for all, but only the ones they agree with. With our data, we can assess what reactions are acceptable to students of different ideological bents. The responses below confirm that liberal students are much more likely to find anti-speech reactions acceptable. Accepting violence is not common (9 percent of strong liberals think violence is acceptable), but a third find disruption an acceptable tactic, and a majority of strong liberals agree that the college should not host speakers they find offensive. It looks like strong conservatives are missing from the figures – well they are in the sense that there is zero support among them for these disruptions of controversial speakers.
How should we view these results? Is that *just* five percent in favor of violence against speech? Or is it “FIVE PERCENT!”? I think it’s both. By and large, the student body is not in favor of responses that restrict speech, either by force or fiat. “By and large” means specifically, however, that just 60% are in favor of colleges as free speech zones. These results are less supportive than others garnered from college students or college-aged people in recent years (e.g., see here). That’s not reassuring.
The related question is just as important though and draws on a logic that Denison markets: it doesn’t take many people to start a new initiative, launch an organization, pursue an idea. Cast in the current light: it doesn’t take many people to start an incident that makes national news. It might be helpful to realize that five percent of the campus fills the Burton Morgan lecture hall. I, for one, do not doubt the efficacy of 100+ driven students, especially when they are in ideological agreement.
Is Denison more respectful, any more committed to democratic rights and liberties than the Wellesley students who editorialized that “hostility may be warranted”? I don’t think so. Denison has not been in the national spotlight in the “free speech crisis” because it has gotten lucky. Should we do anything about this? Is this worth a forum? Let’s start talking.