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Editorial: Mixed results from student speech survey

There’s reason to be concerned about some of the responses in the UW System’s survey of student views on free speech, but we’re not convinced the results are as revealing as some might claim.

The survey attempted to get an idea of how students view various issues surrounding freedom of speech. Some headlines would have people believe there are clear-cut results. The Associated Press led with “Survey: UW students afraid to express views in class.”

The results do indeed reflect that, with 57% of students responding that they had wanted to express thoughts on controversial subjects when they were discussed in the classroom but did not do so. The total is the result of combining various reasons, some of which are well outside a university’s control.

Slightly more than 60% of those students said they were concerned about how other students would respond. That’s peer pressure, something no advisor, instructor, or administrator has ever found an effective way to prevent. We’re not sure that’s something the UW System, or any other, can address fully.

That pressure is not entirely created by the students, we would note. The emphasis in education, often from a young age, is to avoid conflict with one another. The result is that students often reach higher education with little experience or skill in disagreeing with one another in a constructive manner. Criticism of ideas is conflated with criticism of the person.

It’s problematic that such an essential skill is rarely taught, largely because teachers and administrators at lower levels often prefer calm and quiet to vigorous debate. But perhaps it’s not surprising, given the past several decades’ emphasis on STEM subjects, in which there are clear right and wrong answers, and clear de-emphasis on subjects that may be open to interpretation.

More troubling was the 40% who said they were afraid their grades would drop if they spoke up. That’s very much something the university can and should address. If universities truly strive to be a marketplace of ideas where different views can be explored and understood, instructors cannot lower students’ grades due to simply disagreeing with an argument the students put forth.

The survey may also be open to people drawing conclusions based on flawed questions. Students were almost evenly split when asked whether the First Amendment allows a university to ban hate speech on campus. Respondents said yes 32.4% of the time and no 26.4% of the time. A plurality, 41.5%, said they weren’t sure.

We don’t see that question as particularly useful. First, whose definition of hate speech is being used? Is it the school’s, the student’s, or the one belonging to the unknown writer of the question? Is the speech in private conversation or publicly proclaimed? Is it disruptive? All of those factors play a role in determining an appropriate response.

Also lost in the immediate response is that there are clear points on which the students got it right. More than three quarters of students said it would violate a student’s right to free speech if a residence hall director removed a political sign from the student’s dorm room. A similar number correctly surmised an accusation of bribery, when known to be false, is not protected.

And it is entirely unsurprising that students scoring lower in their knowledge of the First Amendment were also more likely to say university administrators “should ban the expression of views if some students feel those views (cause) harm to certain groups of people,” or to equate taking offense to someone’s view to being harmed. That’s a lack of recognition, intentional or otherwise, that others have the same rights to their view as the respondent.

What do we believe the survey reveals? It shows students are much like the general population. There’s disagreement on the meaning of free speech. There is confusion about how it applies given existing case law and current interpretations. The study shows student society is as conflicted and messy as our wider society, and that should surprise no one.

It’s appropriate, perhaps, that the university released this attempt at reading tea leaves the day before Groundhog Day. While the results show some interesting points, we’re not sure it’s more useful for policy creation than the rodential forecasts that arrived yesterday.

— From the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram

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