‘It’s a loaded issue’: The truth about freedom of speech on campus

By Katelyn Becker

Survey: Four in 10 students bit their tongue in class recently. Reason? Many feared offending classmates.

The issue of freedom of expression is a lot more complicated when you ask students.

While the media seem to focus on the most obvious issues, student responses in a recent survey reflect the deep complexities of the conversation surrounding trigger warnings, safe spaces and freedom of speech on campus.  Although some students are heated about the issue, the survey captured a host of opinions in between.

The Voiceless survey was distributed online by American University’s Writing and Editing for Convergent Media class. The survey was open from March 21 until April 21, 2016.

While the survey was not scientific because the students self-selected whether to respond, the results were taken from more than 300 respondents from dozens of universities across the country via email, social media and word of mouth.

Major findings

The Voiceless survey team found that:

  • 6 in 10 students say that college students are somewhat or very coddled;
  • The majority of students in the survey don’t feel strongly that trigger warnings have a place in the classroom;
  • 4 in 10 students reported that the last time they were reluctant to voice their opinion in the classroom was in the previous week or earlier that month;
  • Of students who said they were reluctant to voice their opinion in the classroom, half said their opinion was a minority opinion, half said their opinion would be different than everyone else and almost half said they fear offending someone (respondents could provide more than one reason for their reluctance);
  • When asked what a university should do in these situations, 61 percent of students said it should provide trigger warnings; 55 percent said universities should discipline students who don’t maintain a safe space; and 48 percent said universities should monitor and address anonymous social media like Yik Yak.

Of the respondents, 79 percent identified as white, 11 percent as Asian or Asian-American, 9 percent as Hispanic or Latino and 8 percent identified as African American or black. The demographic question allowed respondents to check more than one box and many of them did.

Getting diverse voices posed a challenge for the survey.  This may be because the term “freedom of speech,” which was cited in the intro to the survey, has been politically co-opted.

Angie Chuang is a professor at American University and an expert on race in the media. She said the terms used in the survey could have turned people away. “The term freedom of speech has become so loaded,” she said.

“It’s an example of how dynamic and tricky this issue is that we can’t even come up with words that are journalistically objective to describe the issue.”

Do students feel coddled?

The survey revealed some differing opinions. While the media are focusing on political correctness on campus, students are all over the board when it comes to whether they think college students are coddled.

Over half the student respondents said that they felt college students were somewhat to very coddled on campus while about one third of respondents said students were not that coddled or not coddled at all.

This is consistent with other data such as the recent 2016 Gallup survey sponsored by the Knight Foundation and the Newseum Institute. That survey found that by 78 percent to 22 percent, more students say colleges should expose students to all viewpoints.

To warn or not to warn?

Trigger warnings are disclaimers about sensitive topics in discussion or in class material. 87 percent of students were familiar with the term, and 40 percent said none of the professors they’ve had have provided them in class.

Larry Engel is an associate professor at American University and the chair of the faculty senate. “We passed a faculty resolution in the fall, we started last semester, that reaffirmed our commitment to the freedom of academic expression. It did not condone trigger warnings in the classroom,” he said. “We also stated that it was up to faculty members to make that choice.”

When asked on a scale of 1 to 10 how strongly they feel that trigger warnings should be in the classroom, the students’ most popular response was 1, or not strongly. While the media seem to focus on trigger warnings as a concern of the “coddled and corrected” student, college kids seem to disagree.

Engel said it is “extremely difficult” for faculty members to anticipate what could trigger their students. Every student is made up of a life of experiences, so a professor may never know what requires a disclaimer for each student.

Students: We’re afraid to offend someone

The 2016 Gallup poll also revealed that “far more U.S. adults (40 percent) than college students (22 percent) believe Americans’ ability to exercise their free speech rights is weaker today than it was 20 years ago.” Perhaps these perceptions explain the differing opinions between what the media is writing about, and how students actually feel.

Four in 10 students reported that the last time they were reluctant to voice their opinion in the classroom was in the previous week or earlier that month. When asked why they felt reluctant to voice their opinion, almost half the students said they felt that they would offend someone and almost half said that their opinion would be different than someone else.

Regarding their ability to express themselves, one student responded in the survey,

“Sometimes I’m cautious as to what I say/wear because I don’t want to deal with some liberal college student bashing me. If I heard something I didn’t like I would just keep on moving but I say one thing wrong and I have social justice warriors all over me.”

Racial differences on the subject

Sydney Jones, vice president of American University’s NAACP chapter, said in an email that freedom of speech on campus is a “larger issue than expression” for black students. Jones said when black students voice their opinion “responses such as ‘then go to an HBCU,’ ‘you complain about everything,’ or ‘it’s not that big of a deal’ are very common.”

“Freedom of speech means something different for blacks students. Most times, black students aren’t using that freedom the same way white students are. They’re using it to vocalize feelings of marginalization and they receive negativity in response,” Jones said.

Chuang described a scene at American University. “Not too long ago during a Black Lives Matter protest on campus here, there were counter protesters who confronted the Black Lives Matter protest by chanting free speech,” she said. “So you take that word that has this neutral connotation like ‘we all want free speech,’ and you kind of co-opt it for one side of the argument. You know, I thought it was really ironic that people were chanting free speech to silence a protest. It kind of seems counterintuitive to the idea of free speech.”

However, Engel said that this could be due to privilege. “I worry that those from perhaps a more privileged class, however one defines that, may be more apathetic because these issues don’t necessarily affect them,” he said.

Chuang also said that the apathy to the issue might be due to genuine fatigue. While more than 300 students completed the survey, many of the 688 respondents dropped out after the first few questions. It’s possible that many of these students declined to answer because they didn’t feel strongly about the subject, or they were uncertain how they feel about these issues.

“It’s a loaded issue, it’s an emotionally draining issue, and it’s one that particularly in mainstream media has been mischaracterized,” Chuang said. “Often young people are made to look like they’re whiny or they’re spoiled and it’s generally not a positive experience to consume media or engage in discussions about these issues.”



Music Education Hitting High Notes in Every Student Succeeds Act

by Katelyn Becker

Although most people agree that music education is a positive addition to school curriculum, these programs have often been left on the cutting-room-floor after budget allocations and funding. Despite the benefits, schools were constricted by standardized testing and the No Child Left Behind Act.

On December 10, 2015 President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The act emphasized a holistic education for students meaning an education where they get more than just math and language arts. It also recognizes music education as an integral part to a holistic and well-rounded education.

Ronny Lau is the Legislative Policy Advisor at The National Association for Music Education. According to him, “music education now has a seat at the table.”

For people who have rallied for better funding for music education, this law is groundbreaking. Music education is finally recognized and validated as an important step to shaping the minds of students. As school systems begin to chart their courses going forward with ESSA, many students, teachers and advocates are anticipating the impact that it will have on music education across the country.

Going forward, the impact of the law has yet to play out in school systems in D.C. and across the country but some advocates are hoping for some changes.AAA

Every Student Succeeds Act

ESSA is replacing the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which both parties and educators criticized for the amount of standardized testing and rigidness in funding for schools. The country is shifting from a federal common core structure to giving the power back to states, however the Department of Education is overseeing their actions by monitoring the states. After the NCLB Act was unsuccessful, Congressional leaders from both political parties worked together to propose the ESSA that passed in December.

In a recent hearing at the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, committee member Robert Scott said that this legislation was a bipartisan effort.

“In a time when Congress is often chastised for its brokenness and compromise we clearly accomplished a great deal coming to a consensus to pass this major legislation,” Scott said.

The policies described steps toward holistic education and more importantly a shift in power to the state and local governments. The legislation gives most of the control for education to local governments, and the federal government will have the responsibility of overseeing the implementation.

Chairman John Kline said that the country had tried the “top-down approach to education during the common core era.” He said therefore, ESSA is a clear push for education to be mostly controlled by the state and local governments across the country.

States and school districts now have the power, which makes the allocation of funding a lot more flexible. Music educators now have the chance to convince their communities that they need to be recognized. The funding of the music programs continue to be up to the school systems, but hopefully without less testing, there will be room for funding for the arts.

Inside the classroom

Sarah Frei is the performing arts teacher at Horace Mann Elementary School in Washington, D.C. She understands the education system in D.C. through interacting with music students at her job.

Frei has been a teacher since graduating from college. When she returned after raising her children, she said she looked for a job that would combine her passions for teaching, music and history.

“As I recall, there was not enough funding for a full-time music teacher,” she said. “I began teaching music and performing arts to the 3rd-5th graders only but as more money became available, I eventually became the full-time performing arts teacher for the entire school.”

When it comes to music education, she said the counterargument is that school systems tend to focus on programs that help the core subjects.

“I think music education has not been funded in the past because when all is said and done, priority has always been given to those programs that directly deal with the teaching of reading, writing and math,” she said. “The classroom teachers’ schedules and needs come first and it’s hard to argue against that when test scores loom large in our school system.”

Now, ESSA is changing how the education system views standardized testing while evaluating a school. At the House hearing, Secretary of Education John King said that No Child Left Behind narrowed the idea of education excellence. ESSA is pushing to broaden this by changing the way the U.S. uses testing.

The new law will allow the state to determine how important test scores really are in the scope of the evaluation of a school. He said this would alleviate test anxiety, stop teachers from teaching to the test and allow for a more well-rounded evaluation of both teacher and student. The act also gives the state the option to decide whether parents can opt their children out of standardized testing.

As ESSA slowly changes the scope of test scores and evaluation of schools, this would allow even more flexibility for school systems to adjust their funding. With the alleviation of this pressure, schools can allocate money where they see fit.

“If I had my chance, I’d invite lawmakers to see one of my musicals…then there would be the proper funding for music education across the land,” Frei said.

Paving the Way to Grassroots Advocacy

Music education may now be included in the law, but what really matters is what goes on in the classroom.

The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) is an advocacy group based in D.C. NAfME has been fighting the good fight since 1907. They have 60,000 members across the country and all of them are music educators who work with kids K-12 and beyond.

Ronny Lau, along with two other NAfME registered lobbyists, try to convince the government for more funding and allocation for music education. They also provide educators with the tools that they need to lobby their superintendents and school districts for more funding.

“The state of music education is fantastic, but at the same time there’s a lot of work that needs to be done,” Lau said.

NAfME is taking advantage of this progressive time in education by providing educators tool kits and information to present to the people in charge. Lau said that previously the law included the arts in their core education policy, so administrators could interpret “art” in any way they wanted. Often music programs were the first to get cut. That meant the money that school districts allocated for the arts ended up being split between art and music programs.

Lau said it’s up to music educators to communicate their needs to their local governments to slowly create change.

“What we’re really working on right now is making sure all 60,000 members are engaged and understand what the law actually means so that they can actually present it to their administrators, school boards and those who make these financial decisions so they know that there are these funds now available to support their music programs” he said.

Now that music education is specifically named in the law, the hope is that programs will finally receive funding if superintendents understand the new law and care to fund the music programs.

“It all starts from the power of numbers,” Lau said.

What benefits does music education offer?

Music education has been long regarded as beneficial for students, especially K-12. Many advocates differ on how they view the benefits of music education, but most agree with ESSA-music should be included in the promotion of a well-rounded student.

Ty Russell is the director of student affairs and outreach at Sitar Arts Center in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of D.C. Since music education programs have been cut in the past, Sitar Arts Center is a place where students can go after school to take music and art lessons in a variety of disciplines. The center is also focused on teaching life skills, alongside honing a student’s craft.

“Even more than we try to teach the particular art forms, we want to impart what we call 21st century life skills,” Russell said.

He said that teaching the arts can help students learn skills like problem solving, planning, completion and follow through. They also learn to apply creativity to any situation.

“I see the benefits of arts education on a daily basis,” Russell said. The benefits of this type of education can be quite personal. One example he used was a student he was working with who had problems with impulse control and at school she was being disruptive in class. She also had difficulty focusing. But, she came to Sitar and found that she loved collaging and art. She got so involved in her collage project that it is helping improve her focus issues.

“Self expression involves being in touch with yourself and investigating, delving into what makes you tick, and as you learn to express yourself through whatever art form it is you’re working in, you discover things about yourself,” Russell said.

Russell sees the addition of arts education giving people a vehicle to communicate who they are.

Another benefit is that the arts allows for feedback from others. Russell said this enables students to take pride in their ability to express themselves, especially in a way that they never thought they could before trying an instrument or learning a new skill.

Nancy Snider is the director of the music program at American University. In March she attended a roundtable of advocates with arts administrators to discuss a recent film about a choral program. Having served on the panel discussing the importance of music education, she recommended Americans for the Arts as a helpful resource for advocates.

In the panel, a man from Americans for the Arts was presenting various pitches to help spread the word about arts education. Snider said that to get your point across, you need to connect it to something your audience is interested.

“If you’re speaking to a room of scientists and mathematicians about the arts, sure, get them interested by talking about the transfer values of the arts or talking about how music and the mind intersect,” she said. Transfer values are hard skills that can be applied to other things such as: working with others, and improving from feedback.

Then advocates need to take it to the next level. She argued that schools should have music education, not just for the transfer skills, but also because music is art and art helps shape a better society. After finding common ground with your audience she said, “talk about the quality of the art, and the art for art’s sake.”


She also said that it’s important people receive this education at a young age because it is more difficult to start an instrument later in life.

“It’s essential that we start to teach people from a very young age so that they have a strong foundation and so that they’re able to fully develop as artists and to develop their vocabulary in whatever their discipline happens to be,” Snider said.

If you visit the NAfME website, they provide research and examples of studies showing the hard data of the benefits of music education. For example, they link to a study by College Board in 2012 that shows the increase in test scores when a student takes a class about music appreciation or performance. In addition, there’s also a chance that participation in a musical activity shows that the student is well-rounded, increasing his or her chance of being accepted to a competitive college program.

graph music education
This graph shows the SAT scores of students who took music classes versus students who took none. Graph made by Katelyn Becker using the statistics fro College Board’s study 2012

What’s Next

About 200 executive board members and chairs of The National Association for Music Education will attend the NAfME Hill Day event in D.C this June.

“They usually have a specific task or agenda that they take to their legislators office, whether it’s their senator or their house of representatives member,” Lau said. “They’ll talk about what our legislative priorities are for the upcoming year.”

With ESSA being implemented this year, they will have a lot to talk about.