‘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.”



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