The national conversation over free speech on college campuses is as raw and as polarized as our overall political discourse. No surprise there. What is surprising is our refusal to connect the two.
Let me explain.
I teach at a university that draws thoughtful, engaging students who care about important issues: the climate crisis, police misconduct, political corruption and misinformation, among them. They have plenty of opinions, but they don’t always readily share them. You think you know why: They don’t want to be canceled because they are afraid to offend their peers or be punished by bad grades.
To which I say: it’s complicated.
There are no doubt professors with political agendas, and some administrators have handled free speech controversies with craven inaction. Those problems are real. But students are also afraid to be canceled because they have grown up in a culture suffused with anger — on social media, in the news media and in politics. We’ve taught them that disagreement equals rejection.
Upwards of 90% of college-age students use social media, and many are not shy about posting political views. But in one study, 20% of liberal students, 40% of moderates and about 54% of conservatives said they censored themselves in class because they were worried about “critical comments” on social media.
Ralph Richard Banks, a Stanford law professor, has said that the “dominance of social media as a means through which young people relate to others and learn about their society” stifled debate on campus.
“What happens inside the classroom is shaped by what could happen outside the classroom,” he told Stanford Magazine in 2019. “In class, comments can be made available to the world nearly instantaneously. Social media mobs can seem merciless and relentless.”
A second factor, Banks added, was “students’ willingness to pounce on others whose sentiments they deem unacceptable … leaving a conversation dominated by those with the most extreme and self-righteous views.”
Social media, of course, is all about pouncing on those we disagree with. Young people saw how social media flogged Amber Heard last year during her trial against Johnny Depp. They know how the platforms were used to plant and spread COVID-related conspiracy theories and arguments that wrecked relationships and shattered communities. They are aware of how politicians use social media to bully and demonize.
Consider the noise on social media (and elsewhere) both before and after Donald Trump’s indictment this month. Sobriety and reflection should have governed our response to this unprecedented case. Instead, mocking glee (“Federal indictment against The Pumpkin. Even a Wolverine ‘do won’t help him this time.”) was generally the reaction on the left, and outrage, often hinting at violence, came from the right. As one Republican congress member put it, “We have now reached a war phase. An eye for an eye.”
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Americans rightfully worry that social media has harmed democracy. About 70% blame the internet and social media for making us “less civil in how they talk about politics.”
Hardened positions. Overreactions. Outrage. Insults. That’s the air we breathe. It is the air our college students breathe too.
“In discussing their decisions about classroom speech, students made a wide array of references to the broader culture and how that influenced their perceptions about what they should or should not say in class discussions,” according to a 2021 report by the National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement.
It added: “These included political polarization in the U.S.; the cultural narrative around ‘cancel culture,’ which was heavily influenced by what they saw on social media; messages they received, again often from social media, about specific words or topics that were off-limits; (and) the overall political climate, especially around issues of race.”
At first, students in my classes are always reluctant to disagree with each other, and with me. First class of the semester, I plead with them: Please do disagree. We will all learn more that way, I say. And it’ll be more fun.
This spring in my sports journalism course, we talked, for example, about the five Tampa Bay Rays pitchers who declined last season to join their teammates in celebrating Pride Night at Tropicana Field. They cited religious reasons. Some of my students argued that the players were wrong: Why should their religious beliefs allow them to shun an entire group of fans? Others disagreed: Why should the Rays’ Pride Night trump the players’ religious freedom?
It was all honest and thoughtful and civil. No insults, no raised voices.
As it turns out, students are like the rest of Americans. They stake out a vast middle, and their views are muddled and complex. That’s OK, I tell them. College isn’t about answers; it is about questions. It’s about learning how to learn.
College campuses are messy places for students all along the political spectrum. But laying that entirely at the feet of professors or administrators ignores the link between our dysfunctional sociopolitical discourse, especially on social media, and students’ fearful reticence.
As we — their political leaders and parents, neighbors and friends — seek to cast blame, we may want to start by looking in the mirror.
Stephen Buckley is the Eugene C. Patterson Professor of Journalism and Public Policy at Duke University.