The Free Speech “Problem” on College Campuses

Free speech min
Free speech min

How Do We Engage in Free Speech Without Resorting to Violence?

By Elizabeth Niehaus, Associate Professor, University of Nebraska Lincoln, and Alex Morey, Campus Rights Advocacy Director at FIRE

Elizabeth Niehaus (University of Nebraska) and Alex Morey (Campus Rights at FIRE) discuss the free speech "problem" on college campuses.

The “Free Speech Problem”

By Elizabeth Niehaus – Associate Professor, University of Nebraska Lincoln

To understand the question of whether American universities have a free speech problem, we first must engage with the question of what the purpose of speech and expression are within universities. We care about expression on campus because it can be educational and actually interacting with people who hold different perspectives has immeasurable value. However, at the same time, negative interactions with people different from oneself can increase negative affect and prejudice and lead students to avoid further engagement.

What we need to focus on in the higher education context is not “free speech” per se but rather constructive expression and engagement. Asking whether American universities have a “free speech problem” is not the right question. Instead, we should be asking how American universities can promote constructive expression and engagement toward educational goals. This is not an easy task, though, given larger cultural trends towards affective polarizationmoralizing, and incivility in political discourse—particularly on social media. We are asking college students to do something that they do not see modeled very often in politics or the media and, due to partisan geographic segregationthey are not generally experiencing in their day-to-day lives.

When I talk with students for my own research, they often tell me that they want to engage with different perspectives, but they want to do so constructively. They recognize that people shouldn’t say whatever they want, whenever they want, however they want—particularly in an academic setting. They are open to hearing perspectives and ideas that they might disagree with but want those perspectives and ideas to be expressed in a respectful, civil way. Yet, they are not always confident in their own ability to express themselves constructively.

How Do We Encourage More Constructive Expression and Engagement With Diverse Viewpoints?

First, we must help students develop the capacity to engage constructively across multiple aspects of differences, including political differences. They don’t come to college automatically knowing how to do this and it isn’t easy. Just like we teach students the skills they need for academic writing through required writing courses, we should teach students the skills they need for constructive dialogue.

Second, we need to provide structured, facilitated ways for students to engage across differences—for example, through intergroup dialogue (IGD), both in and out of the classroom. Research on intergroup dialogue programs has found that participating in IGD can increase students’ intergroup understanding, along with their motivation and skills for engaging with people different from themselves. IGD can increase students’ positive affect and empathy towards members of other groups and can also help students see and value other people’s perspectives, potentially serving as a counter to affective polarization.

Third, we need to recognize that there are things that educators can do to promote students’ openness to different viewpoints and interest in having their own perspectives challenged. There are a number of practices that have been shown to promote students’ interest in engaging with diverse perspectives, including courses and programs where students explore diverse perspectives, cultures, and worldviews; research ideas and explore controversial issues using evidence; seek to understand historical, political, and social connections of past events; engage in cooperative learning; and/or have opportunities for positive interactions with diverse peers.

A Word of Warning

Finally, it is important to recognize what will not promote more constructive engagement with diverse perspectives on college campuses and, in fact, might make this type of engagement even less common. For example, state laws that restrict the discussion of controversial issues in P12 and/or higher education classrooms will make it less likely that students will have the types of experiences that we know increase their openness to and interest in engaging with different perspectives. Similarly, rhetoric about a “free speech” or “self-censorship” crisis on college campuses, in part fueled by questionable survey data, can make the challenge of promoting constructive engagement and expression even more difficult. When students hear over and over again that people like them are not able to share their opinions on campus, this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Although fueling the narrative that there is a free speech crisis on college campuses can be an easy way to score political points or raise money, this does nothing to address the educational challenge of helping students constructively engage across differences. If we truly want to foster greater viewpoint diversity on college campuses for the educational value of viewpoint diversity, we should focus on solid educational practices that we know will promote constructive expression and engagement.

Elizabeth Niehaus (University of Nebraska) and Alex Morey (Campus Rights at FIRE) discuss the free speech "problem" on college campuses.

The Growing Free Speech Crisis

By Alex Morey – Campus Rights Advocacy Director at FIRE

“Your words are violence! We don’t want you to speak here. We don’t want your ideas here! Leave! Leave!” Highlighting the worst of the campus free speech crisis isn’t hard. Just pick a day, pick a headline, and pick your (least) favorite quote, like the abovescreamed this past November at conservative pundit Ann Coulter in a Cornell University auditorium. Some students, like the women’s group that invited her, had hoped to hear the controversial Cornell alum speak. But despite security removing student hecklers one by one, more kept popping up.

“Here’s some more violence for ya’,” Coulter quipped during her final attempt to get started. “You’re a fucking fascist,” another student yelled in reply. After that, Coulter gave up. She’d talked for just seven minutes.

The Purposes of Free Speech

Back in 1957, the Supreme Court was asked to decide if the state of New Hampshire overstepped when it investigated University of New Hampshire professor Paul Sweezy over alleged ties to “subversive” political activities. In holding that the state violated Sweezy’s First Amendment rights, the court gave a renowned articulation of the importance of viewpoint diversity on college campuses: “The essentiality of freedom in the community of American universities is almost self-evident… Teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise, our civilization will stagnate and die.”

But students and faculty on many American campuses today are not free to engage with controversial, or even nuanced, views on hotly-contested topics. Instead, as evidenced by the Cornell incident, and half a dozen others like it this year, student demands for campus orthodoxy are coming with increasing speed and ferocity. This semester, we’ve even seen them accompanied by violence. New survey data from Yale’s William F. Buckley, Jr. Program shows the highest-ever reported numbers of students who say they’re too intimidated to share their opinions on campus (63%), while at the same time supporting shout-downs or using violence to counter speech they dislike. 

At the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), the nonpartisan nonprofit where I lead our Campus Rights Advocacy team, we’ve tracked all manner of infringements on student and faculty speech for more than 20 years. Threats coming from the students themselves is a relatively new phenomenon. In 1999, a liberal professor and a conservative one co-founded FIRE to fight illiberal speech codes imposed by college administrators. They hoped to write a few strongly-worded letters and put themselves out of business. Today, FIRE’s staff numbers almost 100. We recently expanded our efforts beyond campus, suing a mayor who silenced constituents, working to preserve the rights of journalists and advocacy organizations like the ACLU, defending a small nonprofit that objected to using electric shocks on autistic people, suing the state of Florida over the speech-chilling Stop WOKE Act, and more.

Resolving the Free Speech Crisis

But our core campus work is more in-demand than ever. We vet a thousand alleged rights violations every year. Most students and faculty who reach out to us are facing institutional discipline for something they said, even though their speech is protected by the First Amendment on public campuses or institutional policy on private ones.

Most anything can draw the scrutiny of unscrupulous (or untrained) administrators, legislators, fellow students, or Twitter mobs urging the university to censor unpopular speech: From Students for Bernie to Students for Trump, vegans to hunters, pro-life and pro-choice students, Nicki Minaj fans, and (everyone’s perennial favorite) students mad about parking. There was the pharmacy student expelled for sex-positive social media posts, the student journalist threatened over critical coverage of his university, and the student sexual assault survivor told she’d be expelled if she shared suicidal thoughts with other students. Those are just a very few. There’s as much variety in our faculty cases, too. We’ve objected when legislators target social justice courses, and, likewise, when administrators make faculty parrot certain views on diversity. Today’s adjuncts are particularly vulnerable, with many non-renewed after teaching controversial material or criticizing administrators.

At FIRE, we’re still trying to put ourselves out of the campus rights advocacy business. More than any other group, we’ll celebrate the day we can confidently declare this free speech crisis over. But for as long as contested words and ideas on campus are met not with criticism or peaceful protest, but with demands for censorship, FIRE will keep working. Because, as the Supreme Court declared more than 50 years ago in no uncertain terms, the future of our civilization depends on it.

The Ineffective Crisis Narrative

By Elizabeth Niehaus – Associate Professor, University of Nebraska Lincoln

I agree with Ms. Morey. It is not hard to find anecdotes that reinforce the narrative that there is a free speech crisis on college campuses. There are almost 6,000 postsecondary institutions in the U.S. enrolling almost 16 million students, so it is not surprising that sometimes some of those 16 million students at one of those 6,000 institutions say and do things that free speech absolutists would find offensive. It is also not hard to conduct surveys with poorly worded questions and then overinterpret the results to promote the idea that there is a free speech “crisis” on college campuses.

I believe Ms. Morey when she writes that folks at FIRE are “trying to put [them]selves out of the campus rights advocacy business,” but clearly the tactics they have been using to do so are not moving us towards that goal. Rather than their efforts resulting in fewer challenges on campus, FIRE’s “work is more in-demand than ever.” Perhaps that is an indication that the crisis narrative isn’t working, and instead, it is time to start supporting the hard work of promoting constructive engagement on campus.

It is vital that we acknowledge that this is, in fact, hard. It is hard to sit in a classroom, surrounded by friends and other classmates, discussing controversial issues that you are just yourself learning about and forming opinions on. It is hard to figure out how to express yourself in a way that can actually contribute to a productive class discussion with people who might disagree with you. It is hard to be an instructor in such a classroom, week after week helping students to navigate these complex dynamics.

As I argued in my opener, there are a number of research-based strategies that we can use to help students develop the skills and dispositions to promote constructive engagement with diverse perspectives in college and beyond. I invite those who care about the educational and democratic benefits of constructive expression in higher education to focus on the hard work of putting these strategies into practice, rather than continuing to promote this counterproductive crisis narrative.

Advocating for Constructive Engagement

By Alex Morey – Campus Rights Advocacy Director at FIRE

Martin Luther King, Jr. (my favorite “free speech absolutist”) famously observed that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” FIRE agrees. That’s why when students or faculty tell us they’re being censored, we take the facts, apply the relevant law or policy, and advocate for a just outcome. Hundreds of people come to us every year in crisis, with their education, career, or future at stake simply because they exercised their basic expressive rights.

By Dr. King’s calculus, the measure of injustice in the campus speech space is not what percentage of people it happens to, but that it happens at all. All modern conceptions of free speech presuppose that these protections are needed precisely for those in relatively small out-groups who are saying controversial things — things Dr. Niehaus might deem “non-constructive.” These rules exist precisely to protect speech many find “unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.

Constructive engagement with divisive issues on college and university campuses is of critical importance. It is also incredibly hard, and data shows it’s getting harder. The question then becomes: Who decides how students may engage and with what material? Protecting speech we dislike on campuses creates space for students and faculty to express themselves authentically and to test all ideas in “the crucible of rational criticism.” Anything else risks imposing an orthodoxy on our nation’s campuses. We might yet disagree about whether that constitutes a “crisis,” but the people who come to FIRE for help know it is an injustice.

If you enjoyed this article, please make sure to like, comment, and share below. You can also read more from our Culture Wars series here

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Elizabeth Niehaus
Associate Professor, University of Nebraska Lincoln | Website | + posts

Dr. Elizabeth Niehaus is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Administration at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln and a Senior Fellow with the University of California National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement. Through research, teaching, and outreach she explores the intersections of free speech, academic freedom, and campus climate. In her current research, she is investigating how students make judgments about their own and other students’ potentially controversial classroom speech.

Alex Morey Headshot Alex Morey min e1669751765781
Alex Morey
Campus Rights Advocacy Director at FIRE | + posts

Alex is an attorney and a journalist whose approach to defending student and faculty rights blends trusted legal strategy and the power of public interest reporting. She leads FIRE’s Campus Rights Advocacy program, a team of attorneys and advocates who help people of all political and ideological persuasions facing civil liberties threats on American college campuses. Alex is a member of the First Amendment Lawyers Association and is licensed to practice law in the District of Columbia, New York, and Wisconsin, where she lives with her husband and their three children.


Paul Brodwin January 29, 2023 at 6:52 pm

I appreciate this dialogue, and I was especially interested in the strategies to teach students about engaging with people of different beliefs and political commitments. I’d like to learn more from Dr. Niehous about her experience helping her students learn such skills. At a certain point, however, these two individuals are talking past each other simply because of their drastically different positions in the world. A professor wants to teach, and a lawyer wants to litigate. The two activities have different goals and tactics. From my position — a college teacher who also contributes money to FIRE — I am very aware of the tension. Students should be taught to acquire greater intellectual confidence, empathy, and ability to tolerate disagreement. At the same time, both students and professors need a zealous advocate when their freedom (to teach and learn) is constrained by political interests and adminstratve inanity. There’s really no fundamental conflict between Niehous and Morey; they are working on such different tasks. Thanks to “Divided We Fall” for showcasing this issue!

Joe Schuman January 29, 2023 at 11:44 pm

Thanks for the thoughtful analysis, Paul! And for your support of free speech and civil discourse.


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