The United States of America was founded with the goals of fostering liberty and the unimpeded pursuit of happiness. Whether or not the Founding Fathers et al. sabotaged those goals from the very beginning by massacring the Native Americans or by enslaving tens of millions of African-Americans remains a contentious issue. Nonetheless, the ideologies of free speech, freedom for religion and protection of privacy persisted even in times of widespread bureaucratic hypocrisy, including the Jim Crow era, McCarthyism and Japanese internment camps.
Today, some prominent pundits express concern that young people don’t value free speech like generations past did, citing riots on college campuses and low proportions of Republican professorship as evidence that the university environment fosters a culture of parochialism and intolerance of opposing views.
In the past two years, student protestors have rampaged at the visitation of high-profile public figures on several different university campuses. Famous incidents include canceling the University of California-Berkeley event when far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos was slated to speak and blocking part of a speech at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor by scientist Charles Murray, a man notorious for his borderline-eugenic claims that black Americans are less intelligent than white ones and that policy should be adjusted accordingly. Analysts have pointed to disturbances like these as proof that students refuse to listen to non-progressive opinions. Universities have reported struggling with balancing the responsibility of encouraging dissenting discourse from controversial speakers and the right to free speech from student protestors.
Conservatives aren’t only worried about the willingness—or lack thereof—of students to listen to right-wing public figures. In national polls, the majority of college students said that the university environment discourages free speech, with respondents believing that political conservatives face the greatest challenges when expressing their views, compared to other minority groups, like Muslims and immigrants.
“[W]hen I express my views on campus I feel like other students reduce my political philosophy to their preconceived notions about [the] conservative movement. When this happens, I am unable to clearly voice my stance on salient issues and contribute to public discourse,” Sunity Chowdhury, a self-identified conservative Georgia State student who helped establish the university’s new chapter of Turning Point USA, said.
Chowdhury had trouble finding a faculty sponsor to help charter Turning Point USA, a national conservative students’ organization. Even when researching for this article, the three faculty members and the College Republicans that The Signal reached out to who have expertise on tolerance, conservatism and free speech declined interview requests.
Across the United States, several studies have found that fewer than 10 percent of professors identify as conservative. A report published in the Washington Post also found that professors tended to refrain from disclosing their political affiliations until they received tenure, after which they were more willing to broadcast their opinions.
Some conservative undergraduate students at Georgia State have also felt like they have to keep “closeted” about their political beliefs.
“I tend to keep most of my political views to myself on campus. I think there a lot of places where I just don’t think it would be smart for me to express my political views practically and with professors,” an anonymous, self-identified conservative Georgia State student revealed.
They said they felt that classrooms—though not in subjects like economics or finance, in tune with the national trend of higher conservative representation in business departments—were hostile environments for those with right-leaning opinions, and they feared that professors would be biased against them if they tried to argue with any of the liberal ideas presented.
Students also expressed grievances about the one-sidedness in academic discourse. “There are many who say, ‘This is a liberal campus, you should have expected it,’ but that is not a good enough excuse for me. It is a liberal campus in many aspects, but it is also an institution of higher education which, in my opinion, should be open to any viewpoint and should present facts and information in an unbiased way. By doing this, students can form their own educated opinion without the bias of their professor having too great an effect,” another anonymous Georgia State student said. Several students said that while they wanted to voice their opinions, it often wasn’t worth the social consequences in settings like classrooms and liberal arenas.
Certainly, it is important to have intellectual diversity in academia. That diversity includes conservative ideas, in addition to a heterogeneity of worldviews outside of Republican-Democrat politics. Still, the archetype of an uber left-wing campus where conservatives are all but physically forced to keep their beliefs secret or else suffer consequences, akin to the LGBTQ populace’s compulsion to keep their sexual orientations hidden only a few decades ago (and still today in many communities), is exaggerated at best. People across the political spectrum have become significantly more tolerant of ideological speakers, except for open racists, being allowed a platform since 1972. Indeed, a study from the Knight Foundation found that university students are more likely than the average American citizen to support free speech on campus and in the classroom. These findings are consistent with research that university attendance plays a causal role in open-mindedness.
However, the right to free speech doesn’t necessarily come without repercussion. While people have the right to trumpet their beliefs, they are not immune to adverse reactions to that speech, especially if it comes with baggage that could conceivably threaten others’ way of life. Consider survey findings that nearly half of black college students and over one-third of Jewish students have reported feeling “personally uncomfortable” because of comments made about their ethnicity or religion. Republicans were the least likely group to have been threatened.
There is a substantial difference, though, between merely holding a conservative worldview versus being dangerous and hateful. Conservative students at Georgia State said they were hesitant to speak up about their beliefs in case their peers misconstrued them as pro-Trump fanatics or in one student’s words, “as an alt-right [member].”
Portraying the opposing view as extreme and sinister is a pattern prevalent in both liberal and conservative rhetoric: the “alt-right” phenomenon is an interesting case study. To greatly simplify this phenomenon: initially, the alt-right mainly encompassed “race realists” and white nationalists. As the alt-right gained traction and entered the mainstream field of vision, its definition broadened substantially, with pundits who committed microaggressions being labeled part of the alt-right. This can result in demonizing anyone who disagrees with conventional points of view, eroding the meaning of “radical right-wing ideologies,” and even leading people into extremism.
Demonization occurs in conservative circles as well. One only needs to turn to the alleged propagation of the nominal “alt-left” that has been debunked by several reports, or fear-mongering via exaggeration and misunderstanding of liberal ideals by websites like Breitbart and The Daily Caller. Studies have shown that professed liberals are no more tolerant of their conservative counterparts than conservatives are of liberals. Ultimately, much of the panic regarding the ostensible “free speech epidemic” on campus is likely the result of both the general trend of antipathy between the two political parties and low rates of conservative professorship. Underrepresentation of conservatives at universities is primarily attributed to self-selection, the fact that more liberal students aim to pursue academic research and professorship. Comparatively, conservative college students tend to seek careers in business and other 9-to-5 jobs.
Conservatives have been lamenting liberalism in academia since 1951, with William Buckley’s “God and Man at Yale,” in which he argued that alumni, who tended to be religious and traditional, should be determining curriculums, rather than experts. But contrary to what he contends, there’s little evidence that suggests that liberal professors have any impact on students’ political affiliations. What there is evidence for is that liberals are likely to drop friends for their political beliefs, while conservatives are more unlikely even to have friends who are liberal. Ideological echo chambers don’t belong in intellectual discourse, nor do they contract the rifts between people’s beliefs.
“It is important to have an open mind when you are discussing nuanced topics so that you are able to absorb information that might alter your current worldview,” Chowdhury said.