The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) was founded more than 20 years ago to defend civil liberties on college campuses throughout the U.S. To do this, FIRE advocates for students and faculty, litigates, and educates to make sure that those on campus understand their rights to free speech and due process — and can stand up when those rights are violated.
We spoke with Alex Morey, editor-in-chief of FIRE’s Newsdesk, and Sean Stevens, senior research fellow in polling and analytics, to glean the latest insights from FIRE’s research. This conversation has been adapted for length and clarity.
CKI: Tell us about the climate on campus today.
Morey: Unfortunately, threats to free speech and due process on America’s college campuses have continued to grow. We reviewed 1,500 rights violations in 2020 alone, which is a record for us. That’s up from 999 the year before. FIRE took action in a good fraction of those cases, whether in a public way or private advocacy on behalf of students and faculty who did not want public exposure.
In 2020 there was a lot of social upheaval and conflict. And historically, one of the first things people do in response is to turn to strategies like censorship to combat social ills. We saw this pattern confirmed in 2020. A lot of students and universities tried to shut down anything that was controversial across the political spectrum. There were examples of institutions shutting down speech on both sides of a controversy.
We saw a huge spike in censorship of students who were critical of their university’s response to COVID-19, specifically student journalists. Faculty who had controversial insights about COVID-19 were punished without due process. In other cases, we saw students ask universities to quickly jump to censorship without further discussion.
CKI: How do you respond to the argument that some speech is so dangerous that it requires censorship?
Morey: Throughout history, free expression is the way that people have resolved their differences without violence. It was a radical idea for a long time before American democracy came around and the Founders enshrined it in the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
Every generation has to defend this idea, because every generation has people come along who say unpopular things. And every generation has people who want to silence unpopular ideas. We have to remember that interracial marriage used to be unpopular. Abolishing slavery used to be unpopular. Because speech rights were preserved, these “unpopular” ideas took hold in our society and won out in the end.
We have to remind people that it’s always been a radical idea to have free speech. No matter what’s being said, as long as it doesn’t break the law, that speech needs to be protected.
Stevens: Free speech has been one of the driving forces for social progress, if not the primary one. Especially since the American Revolution.
I’ll repeat an argument Ira Glasser made. When you make the request to censor something, to create a new rule or law, keep in mind that, in most cases, you will not be the person who makes the decisions once that law is passed. And the new rule could very well come back on you.
Morey: And history shows that any restriction on free expression is usually turned around and used on minority, dissenting voices. Even if you think, “Just this one person ought to be censored,” any restriction on free expression has a way of extending its tentacles and coming around to bite the people who called for the action in the first place.
CKI: How do you think about self-censorship? How do you know if people feel comfortable exercising their right to free speech?
Stevens: I think self-censorship is the more serious, silent threat on campus. It’s harder to detect. You have to rely on someone telling you they self-censored.
There could be reasons to self-censor that aren’t necessarily violations of free expression. But what we’re very concerned about at FIRE is an overall climate on campus where students and faculty don’t feel they can express their views or ideas. In the case of faculty you see this pop up in the research realm.
We explored this in our 2020 Free Speech Rankings research, a very large survey of four-year, full-time college students. Roughly 60 percent of students said they had self-censored once. That 60 percent figure is consistent with other surveys that asked similar questions.
From our survey, Heterodox Academy’s Campus Expression Survey, Knight–Gallup research, and others, I think the broad point you can draw is that a notable portion of students on campus are reticent to enter difficult conversations or discussions about controversial topics.
CKI: Where does the pressure to self-censor come from?
Stevens: The reason most people give for self-censorship tends to be the fear of social consequences. This seems heightened when a person is clearly in the minority opinion.
In the open-ended comments, students from both sides of the political aisle wrote comments like, “There’s all these conservatives around and I can’t say X because I’m very progressive” or vice versa: “There’s all these very progressive students around and I can’t say X. I’m afraid they’re going to ostracize me.” Fear of facing a social–media mob is increasing.
Morey: They don’t want to speak out if they know everybody in the class disagrees with them.
Stevens: Racial and ethnic minorities also expressed discomfort in our survey. Black and African-American students reported that topics of race and affirmative action were especially difficult to discuss openly and honestly.
When you dig deeper into the data, there’s a lot of nuance to who is afraid to speak up and about what topic. The broad pattern is that a notable portion of students are reluctant, reticent, and fearful, in part because they perceive themselves to be in the minority and think that their speech is controversial.
CKI: How can someone encourage a climate of free expression?
Stevens: I think faculty members can model that culture with each other as well as in the classroom.
Morey: I agree. People need to know their rights and be willing to stand up for them.
Not everybody can publicly say, “My school censored me and I’m taking a stand.” But when people do that, it’s a powerful example, and it educates others. When big, public schools change their policies, thousands of students get their free–speech rights back.
There are constitutional violations happening all the time. So it’s really important that people know when their rights have been violated, and then are willing to take action. That’s at the heart of what we do.
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