Free Speech in the Bubble

By Zach Broeren

[Photo Credit: Minh Tran ‘24]

Free speech has become one of the most hot button topics on college campuses in recent years. Popular internet personalities will stick themselves on campuses to ask questions on free speech, op-eds will be written on media platforms from Fox News to MSNBC, and many other people will shine lights on this topic. The reason for this is quite simple: free speech on college campuses remains a very evenly contested topic. When picking the topic for Denison Debate Society’s inaugural campus-wide debate in Fall of 2021, we gathered survey responses on attitudes on several topics. By a large margin, free speech was the only one that actually had a mostly equal response on both sides (with quite a few neutrals as well).

That survey only scratched the surface, however. In the October 2021 survey, we asked several questions relating to free speech on Denison’s campus. The first question on the survey asked respondents how they would respond to the following proposal: “Denison University should consider speech that offends another person as constituting discriminatory harassment and subject to disciplinary action.” Respondents could choose from 1 (Strongly Oppose) to 7 (Strongly Support). Very similar to the survey done for Denison Debate Society, responses were pretty well spread out, with a lean toward support (47 percent versus 36 percent in opposition).

Students may be divided but that doesn’t tell us how much they care. Fortunately, the survey asked how important this issue was to each respondent. This is where major differences started appearing between most respondents. As the choices started moving away from Neutral to Strongly Oppose and Strongly Support, respondents noted at higher rates that this issue was important to them. However, those who selected Strongly Support (those who wish to limit free speech) signaled that this issue was much more important to them than those who selected Strongly Oppose.

Underlying the polarization of the American public is living in information bubbles, preventing people from learning what and how others think. Are students in free speech bubbles? To answer this, the final question we asked in this battery asked respondents what percentage of Denison students agreed with them on the issue presented in the previous question. While those who selected the more polar options believed that more of the campus agreed with them, those who selected “support” and “strongly support” were in a league of their own. They believed that much more of the campus agreed with their beliefs than respondents who chose other responses, so much so that there is a significant difference between those two responses and the other five. These results loosely indicate that the more important this issue is to a person, the more likely they are to think that more people agree with them.

There is some debate as to whether free speech is an ideological difference or an underlying difference. Chiefly, some people contend that college free speech is a partisan issue with a clear red/blue divide, while others contend that it is an issue from ideology and rather is influenced by outside forces. Who’s correct in this situation? Our data strongly suggests the former of these two situations. As one got closer to Strong Republican, the more they strongly opposed the policy we noted earlier (that is, they expressed more support for unfettered free speech).

An interesting tidbit in the data I noticed was that those who selected Democrat had a much higher score than those who selected Strong Democrat (almost a statistically significant difference) which very much reminded me of the difference in support for Joe Biden noted in a previous article I wrote. That prompted a deeper analysis into the data; in that article I theorized that this difference may be driven by political sects more than party identification. This theory appears to somewhat hold up: As noted in an article by Jacob Dennen and Paul Djupe, Strong Democrats are much more likely to identify as progressive than Democrats and Democrats are much more likely to identify as liberal than Strong Democrats. This may explain the difference among Democrats in support of free speech on campus: Progressives were much more supportive of free speech than Liberals as the following figure shows.

The results of the October 2021 survey are quite noteworthy from how they break from past results on free speech. In fall of 2017, Dr. Djupe wrote a very similar article covering the same ground. Since then, there has been a shift in the student population. There continues to be a fairly even split over restricting free speech. The differences occur in what percentage of campus each group thinks agree with them and how important the issue is to them. In Djupe’s article, each was relatively similar for both sides, while in the October 2021 data those who would restrict free speech not only care more about the issue, they think more of the campus agrees with them. The shift hints at a sizable bubble on campus, unaware of the rest of the student population.

Zach Broeren is a Junior who is wondering if those who selected alt-right on the survey were being serious or ironic.

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