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Can Students Speak Freely on Campus?

New surveys from the Knight Foundation and Heterodox Academy are revealing.

Key points

  • A recent Knight Foundation survey indicates that high school students are not tremendously supportive of free speech.
  • A recent Heterodox Academy survey indicates that college students are not experiencing open discourse about controversial topics.
  • College students are self-censoring out of fear of negative ramifications.
  • New and existing resources are available for those looking to foster open discourse and civil disagreement.

Two recent surveys, by the Knight Foundation and Heterodox Academy. spotlight the fragile state of free speech in America. They indicate that high school students think they support free speech more than they actually do, and on average, college is not an experience of open discourse and civil disagreement.

The Knight Foundation survey highlights how tenuous high schoolers' support for freedom of speech really is. Only 57% say they strongly agree that people should be allowed to express unpopular opinions. Another 32% say they “mildly” agree. And even this lukewarm support for free speech is more theoretical than evident. In practical terms, when unpopular opinions are considered “offensive,” only 40% of high school students continue to agree at all that people should be allowed to express them in public, and the majority of those only mildly agree.

Speech that results in offense, including what some call “hate speech” (however they define it), is the speech that most needs protection; the speech everyone loves needs none. Speech people find offensive is intentionally protected by the First Amendment—for example, flag burning, peaceful protests, music lyrics, and even band names.

Of course, the First Amendment protects speech from government censorship. But a culture of free speech is a culture in which justification for nongovernmental censorship hews closely to the First Amendment and the line between speech and violence is clear and respected. However, too few high school students surveyed seem to understand that protecting people’s right to speak is a necessity in a pluralist, liberal democracy. Less than two-thirds prioritize it over protecting people from hearing things that might offend them.

Almost a third of high school students surveyed (30%) even think the First Amendment goes too far, while only 47% think it doesn’t. (The rest say they don’t know.) Given the lack of reverence for the First Amendment, high school students' troubling views about government censorship are not unpredictable. Only a slight majority (57%) say the government should not be able to censor news organizations, and only 59% say the same about the government censoring people on social media.

Source: Volkovslava/FreeImages

If, once they reach college, students expect to encounter peers who express a wide range of views about contentious issues, and the opportunity to openly disagree with them, it appears they will be disappointed. In 2021, according to Heterodox Academy research, almost two-thirds (63.5%) of college students said the speech climate prevented some people on their campuses from saying things they believed, up from 54.7% in 2019. More than a quarter* of students said they are reluctant to talk about controversial topics at all, a proportion slightly higher than in past years’ surveys.

Given the leftward political tilt on campus overall, it is unsurprising that right-leaning students are most reluctant to speak, and independents are more reluctant to speak than are Democrats. Even so, on average, roughly 20% of Democrats are reluctant to speak about controversial topics.**

Why? More than half of students (52%) report fearing that other students might criticize their views as offensive, and roughly one in five fear that expressing their views “would cause others psychological harm.” Other fears include professors criticizing their views as wrong or offensive, getting bad grades, someone posting negatively about them on social media, and having official complaints filed against them.

How can students learn to engage in productive and civil disagreement? And where can teachers go to learn tools for facilitating such conversations?

Enter The Mill Center, a new nonprofit that “turns down the heat on controversial topics so educators and students can untangle complex issues together.” In partnership with The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), The Mercatus Center at George Mason University, and others, scholars at The Mill Center work with students, high school teachers, and university faculty to teach the “mindset, skills, and ground rules needed to broaden conversations and expand knowledge.” (You can read more about The Mill Center in The Journal of Free Black Thought.)

There are other resources, too. Among them, a video series created by The Mill Center's Ilana Redstone, based on her popular college course, Beyond Bigots and Snowflakes; FIRE's guide to first-year orientation and thought reform on campus, and author Bonnie Kerrigan Snyder's educational resources for high school teachers available through FIRE, where she serves as director of high school outreach.

Also, beginning in August 2022, the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins will be offering a version of the course I developed at The University of Chicago's Institute on the Formation of Knowledge, Habits of a Free Mind: Psychology for Democracy and The Good Life. I'll be teaching the course as a Visiting Fellow at the Institute. The primary goal is to foster civil discourse and productive disagreement by empowering students to engage across lines of difference without feeling traumatized and without dehumanizing others. ♦

Pamela Paresky, PhD, is a 2022-23 Visiting Fellow at the Johns Hopkins SNF Agora Institute, a Visiting Senior Research Associate at the University of Chicago's Institute on the Formation of Knowledge, a Senior Scholar at the Network Contagion Research Institute, and the author of the guided journal, A Year of Kindness. Dr. Paresky's opinions are her own and should not be considered official positions of any organization with which she is affiliated. Follow her on Twitter @PamelaParesky, and read her Newsletter at


* Averaging across 5 controversial topics

** Averaging across 4 controversial topics

® The title, Habits of a Free Mind, was the brainchild of Greg Lukianoff, President and CEO of FIRE. The project is being developed with support from The Institute on the Formation of Knowledge at the University of Chicago, The Institute for Humane Studies, and the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University.