Most College Students Self-Censor on Campuses: Survey

September 30, 2020 Updated: October 1, 2020

The largest ever survey focusing on freedom of speech on U.S. college campuses found that most students, especially those who identify as the political minority at their institutions, feel they can’t express their opinions on controversial topics out of fear of perceived intolerance.

Sixty percent of students can recall at least one time during their college experience when they did not share their perspective because they feared how their peers, professors, or school officials would respond, according to a survey and report published Tuesday by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a First Amendment rights advocacy group, and news website RealClearEducation. Conducted by analytics company College Pulse, the survey covers some 20,000 college students at 55 U.S. institutions.

The survey result shows that students who identify as conservatives are more likely to report a previous self-censorship experience (72 percent), compared to those identify as liberals (55 percent). More than 42 percent of the students believe their college would punish a student who expresses his or her controversial or “offensive” ideas instead of defending the speaker’s freedom of speech.

Abortion is identified by more than 45 percent of college students as the topic that is most “difficult to have an open and honest conversation about” on campus, the report said. It is followed by race (43 percent), gun control (41 percent), and transgender issues (40 percent).

Using a zero-to-100 scale, the survey also ranks the 55 schools according to how much freedom of speech students say they have on their campus. At the top of the list is University of Chicago, whose conservative minority spoke highly about the administrators’ efforts to prevent them from being ridiculed or marginalized. That being said, most of the UChicago students’ responses published in the survey expressed fear of being bullied by other students because of their unpopular opinions.

Epoch Times Photo
A student walks at the University of Texas campus in Austin, Texas, on June 23, 2016. (Jon Herskovitz/Reuters)

Indiana-based DePauw University ranked last in the survey, with the highest percentage (71 percent) of students who said they have self-censored out of fear of retaliation. “A professor was making a comment on how all Republicans are racist and selfish,” a DePauw student told surveyors. “As a Republican, I felt that I could not speak up and defend myself because of the position of power the professor was in.”

A spokesperson for DePauw told The Epoch Times that the university’s leadership is working to ensure that all students “feel comfortable and supported exercising these values in harmony with one another.”

“We want to be a university where all students, no matter where they reside on the political spectrum or any other form of identity, believe they can express themselves freely,” the spokesperson said. “We are a work in progress and I am confident we are headed in the right direction.”

“A university should be a lively marketplace of ideas—a place where different beliefs and opinions can be discussed, analyzed, and challenged with widest possible freedom,” Nathan Harden, a RealClearEducation editor, said in a statement. “If students don’t feel free to speak their minds, or if they aren’t exposed to diverse points of view, it greatly diminishes the value of their education.”