A common refrain on campuses today is that students are likely to self-censor their views and ideas. Looking at the data, this is an experience shared by nearly all students and amongst almost all races.
In 2016, when students were asked about the security of their freedom of speech, almost three-quarters (73%) felt secure in their First Amendment right, according to a Knight Foundation study. In 2021, that number declined to 47%. During that time, nearly two-thirds (65%) of students felt their school stifles free expression, up from 54% in 2016.
There is a rampant culture of self-censorship. As a professor, I see this all the time in class and during campus events; students anxiously want to ask questions or make particular points but opt to say nothing instead.
Data from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE)’s new study of almost 45,000 currently enrolled students at more than 200 colleges and universities around the nation provides a deeper look at how students think about self-censorship. Disturbingly, the desire to silence dissent is not only widespread, but also far too common across all racial and ethnic groups.
Some claim that speech codes and other restrictions on free expression on campus are necessary because free speech, as currently defined, effectively silences minority groups. They say as a corrective, it’s important to be far more sensitive to the harm that words can do — creating safe spaces and, in some cases, silencing controversial speakers.
But data from FIRE shows that the racial differences between how young people perceive campus climates is minimal. Fifty-six percent of Black students report that they limit what they say out of concern for reactions — a number far too high. Fifty percent of Hispanic students, 56% of Asian students, and 54% of white students report doing the exact same thing.