- Competing Norms of Free Expression and Political Tolerance
fifty years after iconic student protests in berkeley forced the university of California to end restrictions on campus political activism, free speech controversies are again roiling American universities. In a remarkable role reversal, however, the student protesters now demand that universities censor and cancel events featuring speakers who espouse controversial views about politics, race, religion, gender, and sexuality. Administrators who refuse to curb their institutions’ commitment to free expression face disruptive and potentially violent demonstrations by students who often seek not just to air opposition to offensive speech but to suppress it entirely.
Observers across the political spectrum lament what they regard as a failure of the educational system to promote understanding and appreciation of the importance of free speech in a democratic society. A recent Brookings Institution report (Villasenor 2017) based on a poll of college students concludes that “many students have an overly narrow view of freedom of expression … and a majority of students appear to want an environment that shields them from views they might find offensive,” a state of affairs that it attributes to “insufficient attention given to the First Amendment” before and during college. Other polls reach similar conclusions.1 An annual UCLA survey of American college freshmen conducted since the 1960s finds [End Page 197] a steady rise, from slightly over 20 percent in 1973 to 43 percent in 2016, in agreement with the idea that colleges have the right to ban extreme speakers from campus. The same survey shows support for banning racist and sexist speech is even higher, and has increased in the aggregate since 1991 from 61 percent to 71 percent. A recent survey of students, faculty, and administrators at 23 colleges and universities to gauge perceptions of the campus climate reflects observation of more restrictive norms of free speech. Only 36 percent of students and 17 percent of faculty felt it was safe to hold unpopular opinions on their own campuses (Dey et al. 2010). Such findings correspond to assessments of institutional rules and codes on college campuses that restrict freedom of expression. The organization FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) classifies institutions according to the degree to which they have policies that restrict free speech. The vast majority of colleges and universities currently have speech policies that restrict significant categories of speech or that infringe on speech in more limited ways, while fewer than 5 percent of institutions are without any restrictive speech policies.2
More hostile critics deride the modern university campus as fostering intolerance and hypersensitivity, and indoctrinating students with stifling norms of “political correctness” that encourage them to believe they are entitled to special protections from the challenges of open debate in a democratic society. The current conflict over political correctness reflects broader concerns that efforts to root out prejudice and discrimination have been accompanied by growing intolerance of disagreeable ideas and opinions more generally. In the 2016 presidential election and in his first term in office, Donald Trump has attempted to capitalize on the conservative backlash to these developments by repeatedly claiming excessive political correctness as a dangerous impediment to national security and prosperity.3
For all the attention these controversies have received in the mass media, we know little about their broader resonance and implications for attitudes toward free speech in the general public. Intense [End Page 198] elite debates often fail to penetrate the consciousness of a politically inattentive citizenry. In Stouffer’s (1955) classic study of the general public’s willingness to tolerate communists, conducted in the midst of the 1950s Army-McCarthy hearings, fewer than 1 percent of respondents in his national survey spontaneously mentioned domestic communism as one of the most important issues facing the country at that time.
There is good reason, however, to believe that the contested speech norms at work in the current controversies have diffused far beyond the ivory tower, even if few Americans are attuned to the campus conflicts. Those who attended college after the mid-1980s were exposed to the values of multiculturalism and to institutional speech codes that allowed for punishment of those who made remarks offensive...