Campus free speech under fire, new survey suggests

Raga Justin

Collegiate free speech is under fire, a new survey by the Brookings Institution suggests.

Brookings senior fellow John Villasenor recently conducted a survey of 1,500 undergraduates nationwide and said the results were “highly concerning.”

“A surprisingly large fraction of students believe it is acceptable to act — including resorting to violence — to shut down expression they consider offensive,” Villasenor said in the study.

One-fifth of students surveyed believe violence is an acceptable mode of silencing offensive speech. Susan Rice, former national security adviser, said she is worried by the clash between free expression and college students in a panel at last Saturday’s Texas Tribune Festival.

“I’ve got a college kid,” Rice said. “He shares with me on a regular basis how debate is stifled on campus, how professors offer students what they call ‘trigger warnings’ so that students can leave the room before they hear something that is offensive.”

Ashley Vaughan, chairman of UT’s Young Conservatives of Texas chapter, said she believes free speech is “essentially unlimited.”

“There’s no concept of hate speech in the United States,” government senior Vaughan said. “We get to freely express our ideas whether or not they’re popular, and violence is never appropriate in civil society for shutting down free thought and free expression, especially on a college campus.”

Last year, YCT hosted an ‘affirmative action bake sale’ that sparked a protest of several hundred students amid accusations of racism against the group.

The Brookings survey also asked students to imagine a scenario where a controversial speaker was shouted down by a student group, and 51 percent of respondents agreed with the students’ actions.

“I would not mind the opposing group chanting over the speaker,”  biology freshman Alistair Keggen said. “I think that in this day and age there is some type of speech that is archaic, and it doesn’t need to have a place in our society. Anything that doesn’t promote peace, love and positivity, anything that doesn’t promote social justice or the common good for all people, it shouldn’t be here.”

Rice had a few suggestions on how to foster a more open college environment.

“We need to teach our kids how to think critically,” Rice said. “We need to teach them how to analyze information and be able to assess whether it is true or false and not just consume that which they are comfortable with.”