Republicans continue to step up the culture war rhetoric and claim that there is a college free speech crisis. By putting the focus on universities, it conveniently skates over their own classroom censorship in the K-12 space. The recent claim is that these institutions are no longer bastions of open discourse and debate. In their view, universities have become hotbeds of political correctness, where conservative ideas are stifled and students who dare to express non-liberal viewpoints are silenced.

Republicans in the House Higher Education Committee held a hearing on Wednesday where they painted a dire picture of the “one sided” viewpoints that students at universities are hearing.

The general argument is that left leaning professors and administrators are engaging in a silent conspiracy to indoctrinate the next generation of students into left leaning views and voting for democrats, which is why Gen Z votes so overwhelmingly against republicans and part of the reason for the 2022 “Red Wave” failing to materialize.

But of course, Gen Z doesn’t need to be indoctrinated by universities to vote for left leaning candidates, they are doing a good job of meming themselves into that position (often because of climate change if nothing else).

That being said, the idea that universities have become echo chambers is not unique to the current Republican congress. The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt makes this case relatively elegantly, but points to something besides a conspiracy by left leaning professors. 

According to the book, there might actually be a generational difference born from growing up with social media during formative years in middle school and high school that makes kids born after 1996 act noticeably differently than those born before that. Because of the pervasive effect that social media has on body image and self worth broadly, some people may actually feel words as violence in a way that earlier generations have not. This is especially true of women, who are experiencing record high rates of depression and suicide.

According to the book, it is not that the professors and administrators are attempting to construct a school full of safe spaces to ensure that the students wind up being liberals, but that the students are demanding safe spaces where they don’t have to feel like their opinions are challenged or like their ideology is under attack, and the administration is limping along to try to comply.

Disinviting speakers is something that irked most republican lawmakers on the committee and it is something that almost always starts with a student call for the disinvitation as opposed to an administrative reaction to the notice that a conservative would be coming to campus.

So while the general argument that a lack of intellectual diversity is harmful to students might have some validity, legislating that schools must provide space for more conservative speakers might not lead to any better results. The issue does not stem from a cabal at the top, but rather a cultural shift partially driven by the wild west of unregulated social media. 

Universities don’t always have a clear way to respond to this. They often point to policies that protect free speech, such as allowing speakers from a variety of political perspectives to come to campus, and creating spaces where students can engage in open dialogue. Some universities have also taken steps to increase the diversity of viewpoints represented among faculty and staff, but none can really turn the tide on something that amounts to a demographic change.

In fact, in most senses, free speech is still alive and well on college campuses. This survey lists the current state of free speech at colleges across the country and some of the best ones are also the largest. There might be some speakers who are disinvited from speaking, but no professor or student is legally banned from saying specific things in the classroom the way that so many K-12 teachers are currently afraid of saying anything even slightly controversial. There are no school board meetings where teachers must answer to reactionary parents who are frustrated that their child heard about Karl Marx or gender theory.

College free speech crisis
Or even seeing the statue of David’s penis

And because there is no real consequence for having an opinion on campus and no real incentive to stick to some specific philosophy, there is probably more viewpoint diversity on even small campuses than there is in the heart of most large companies.

It would be pretty difficult to find a contingent of anarchists who also work at Apple. Or a bunch of climate change deniers at REI. College is meant to be a place where students can explore ideas and come to a conclusion themselves, and it is still that. It might not be fulfilling that as well as it could be, but there is a real danger to throwing the baby out with the bathwater here, and mandating what “needs” to be said on colleges enters some really shaking free speech territory.

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