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The Chilling of Campus Speech amid COVID-19

College students are increasingly reluctant to speak their minds about controversial subjects

March 1, 2021

Last year, during the deadliest pandemic in a century and most contentious election in modern history, AAC&U released What Liberal Education Looks Like: What It Is, Who It’s For, & Where It Happens, a groundbreaking new vision for a liberal education that responds directly to difficult and compelling challenges “that strike at the very heart of our democracy.”

One of these challenges is the “increasing polarization and partisanship across the country and around the world,” AAC&U President Lynn Pasquerella writes in her foreword to the vision statement. Amid these challenges, “the skills fostered by liberal education—including the capacity to discern the truth, speak across differences, and engage in deliberation with respect to competing arguments and viewpoints—are more critical than ever.”

Despite the potential of liberal education, recent research suggests that college students are increasingly reluctant to speak their minds about controversial subjects, facing restrictions on free speech from their institutions and fearing criticism and backlash from peers and professors.

Students and Faculty Report More Challenges to Free Speech

  • In 2020, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE)—a nonprofit dedicated to protecting free speech on US campuses—received 1,001 case submissions related to faculty and student rights, up from 731 in 2019 and 652 in 2018, according to Inside Higher Ed. Cases spiked in October 2020, with 135 cases reported that month.
  • FIRE’s February 2021 report says that “over the past year, FIRE has received more requests for help than ever before—and a significant part of the jump was due to universities’ handling of the pandemic.”
  • The report organized the cases FIRE received into three “predominant themes . . . since the spread of the pandemic: (1) censorship of speech related to academic institutions, (2) censorship of speech related to COVID-19, and (3) troubling measures applied to campus communities during COVID-19.”

Students Are More Worried about Sharing Their Views on “Controversial Issues”

  • In Campus Expression Survey Report: Fall 2020, Heterodox Academy shares survey results from 1,311 college and university students about how their campus climate affects discussions on “controversial issues” like politics, religion, sexual orientation, race, and gender.
  • Overall, 62 percent of students believe that their campus climate prevents students from sharing their views, an increase of seven percentage points since 2019.
  • Students are most reluctant to talk about politics (41 percent), followed by religion (30.5 percent) and sexual orientation (27.5 percent).
  • Among students in their second year or later, nearly half (45 percent) say that “‘sharing ideas and asking questions without fear of retaliation, even when those ideas are offensive to some people’ became more difficult in the fall.”

Figure 1.


Students Fear Criticism from Other Students and Professors

  • Among students in the Heterodox Academy survey who were reluctant to talk about politics, race, religion, sexual orientation, or gender, more than half (60 percent) said that they were worried that “other students would criticize my views as offensive.”
  • A third (33 percent) were worried “the professor would say my views are wrong,” and nearly as many worried that their professor would criticize their views as offensive (32 percent), they would get a lower grade (29 percent), or that criticism of their views would be posted on social media (31 percent).
  • Fewer students worried that their remarks would cause psychological harm to others (16 percent).

Republicans Are More Reluctant to Discuss Politics, Race, Sexual Orientation, or Gender

  • Republicans are more reluctant than Democrats or independents to talk about four out of the five controversial topics included in the survey—all but religion.
  • Almost half (44 percent) of Republicans are reluctant to discuss the Black Lives Matter movement, compared with just 12 percent of Democrats. And Republicans are twice as likely as Democrats to feel reluctant to discuss the 2020 presidential election (46 percent and 23 percent, respectively) or race (36 percent to 18 percent, respectively).

Other Demographic Groups Are Reluctant to Speak on Certain Issues

  • Other demographic groups felt more worried to speak on certain topics.
  • Women were more reluctant to discuss the presidential election than men (37 and 31 percent, respectively), while men were more reluctant than women to discuss the Black Lives Matter movement (28 and 23 percent, respectively).
  • White, Asian, and Hispanic/Latinx students were nearly twice as reluctant as Black and multiracial students to talk about Black Lives Matter (23–30 percent compared with 12–17 percent, respectively).
  • Agnostic and atheist students were more reluctant to discuss their views on religion than Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or Buddhist students; White and Asian students were more reluctant to discuss race than Black, Hispanic/Latinx, or multiracial students; and straight students were more reluctant to talk about gender or sexual orientation than lesbian, gay, or bisexual students.