Are College Students Really Against Free Speech?

A new book explores the psychological roots of polarization on college campuses—while proposing concrete steps we can take to reverse it.

In 2015, a Mexican-American student at Claremont McKenna College (CMC) wrote in a student newspaper that the institutional culture of the college represented certain groups but not others. Mary Spellman, the college’s dean of students, conceded in an email that “we have a lot to do as a college and community”—and she offered to work with the student to formulate ways the college could better serve “those who don’t fit our CMC mold.” The student interpreted the phrase “mold” as an intended insult, believing that she was stigmatized as an outsider. She posted Dean Spellman’s email online, setting off days of raucous protests. Within a month, Spellman quit her post.

The CMC episode is one of many described in The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, a new book by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) president Greg Lukianoff that explores the psychological roots of polarization on America’s college campuses. Rather than blame a political ideology or political party, the authors seek to understand why an increasing number of students on both the left and right are displaying signs of hypersensitivity when faced with challenging or offensive speech on campus.

Haidt and Lukianoff concede that some of this speech is indeed unarguably sexist or racist, but they worry that students are increasingly reliant on authorities such as campus administrators to resolve these conflicts rather than building up the mental resilience to work things out for themselves.

Their book offers a well-researched look at hypersensitivity and polarization on some American campuses. Yet their critique sometimes overreaches, failing to consider the concerns raised by student activists—and, perhaps relatedly, the book is at its weakest when they draw sweeping conclusions about the root causes of campus polarization. Despite these faults, The Coddling of the American Mind remains a serious attempt to examine the political climate at America’s colleges and universities—one that we should all take a moment to consider.

Students in search of safety
For most of its 20-year existence, write Lukianoff and Haidt, FIRE spent its time defending student and professor speech rights from college administrators, coming to the aid of everyone from left-wing Palestinian rights demonstrators to professors who were fired for defending the rights of a fraternity to be offensive in private.

But Lukianoff noticed that attempts to curtail speech on campus started coming not just from campus administrators, but from the students themselves. At a small but influential number of schools, students began demanding that speakers of certain political persuasions be barred from campus, that professors who discussed certain ideas be censored, and that peers who verbally offended them be officially sanctioned.

On many campuses, say the authors, administrators and faculty tell students who claim that ideas make them feel unsafe that they are right to feel unsafe. “Safety,” in these contexts, doesn’t just mean physical safety from violence, but also the emotional comfort of being shielded from speech or ideas that trigger anxiety. The pair dub this a “safety culture,” based on an ideology they label “safetyism.”

This is the exact opposite of how psychotherapists suggest responding to anxiety, according to the authors. Therapy, they write, encourages you to gradually face the thoughts that make you anxious, put them in proper context, and prevent catastrophic thinking. Safetyism, on the other hand, implies that every thought that crosses your mind about the potential dangers of a poorly worded email, a peer’s microaggression, or a controversial campus speaker is correct. You are right to be afraid, and you have a right to have your college validate those fears and punish those who make you fearful.

In the authors’ view, this culture is maintained by three false beliefs: “what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker”; “always trust your feelings”; and “life is a battle between good people and evil people.”

Haidt and Lukianoff blame these beliefs for a series of instances of censorship and violence at colleges and universities since 2015. They range from the mass protests at Yale University in 2015 in response to an email downplaying concerns about potentially offensive Halloween costumes that forced a professor to resign, to the injury of a professor who accompanied right-wing academic Charles Murray to a talk at Middlebury University.

Are students really against free speech?
Are the authors correct? Is there really a “safety culture” at some of America’s colleges and universities? If there is, is that culture a problem—or is it a solution to historic inequalities and injustices?

It is worth considering the latter viewpoint. For most of American history, colleges were dominated by upper-class white Christian men. As colleges and universities become more inclusive, it is natural for these institutions to take steps to make a more diverse constituency feel more welcome. Few in America would want a return, for instance, to the experience of Gregory Swanson—the first African-American student admitted to the University of Virginia, who later withdrew due to a climate of harassment and threats.

The question is where the line should be drawn between promoting tolerance—and catering to anxiety.

To build their case that we are witnessing excessive hypersensitivity, the authors cite data showing that, by 2017, 58 percent of college students polled said it is “important to be part of a campus community where I am not exposed to intolerant and offensive ideas.” Sixty-three percent of self-identified very liberal students agreed with this idea, but 45 percent of very conservative students agreed, as well. (This data does have an obvious limitation: What is considered offensive will vary among individual students.) In addition, FIRE has tracked disinvitation attempts—where students either on the left or the right tried to stop a speaker from lecturing on campus—at universities since 2000. At the beginning of the century, there were fewer than five disinvitation attempts annually. In 2016, there were over 35.

However, there are some nuances that Lukianoff and Haidt fail to highlight. According to FIRE’s online database, just five of the attempts are classified as coming from the political right—but many of the left-wing attempts came in response to a single speaker: far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopolous, who was subject to a total of 12 disinvitation attempts. Unlike the scholars, activists, and politicians who make up much of the list, Yiannopolous’s only intention is to provoke students—a noteworthy distinction that Lukianoff and Haidt mention but don’t grapple with at length. (In the end, even the political right de-platformed Yiannopolous, mainly for seemingly positive comments about ephebophilia.)

In addition to the extremist or frivolously provocative content of some speech, the authors don’t explore how the formats may have affected disinvitations. The database shows that seven of the attempts were aimed at commencement speeches. Unlike forums or debates, these events do not offer any opportunity for discussion or a rebuttal, and, unlike at most other campus events, almost all of the graduated student body is expected to attend. Therefore, it is possible that students who object to these speeches are not so much opposed to free speech and open debate so much as a lack of those things—something the authors do not consider.

While disinvitation attempts aimed at speakers invited by student groups could be viewed largely as an issue of free speech, many controversial campus speakers are invited with university sponsorship and subsidized by student fees. In this case, student protests may be an attempt to uphold some form of standards—and demand higher-quality speakers. This is yet another distinction that Haidt and Lukianoff do not make.

The evidence they present of rising uniformity in political thought among instructors is stronger. Using research from the Higher Education Research Institute, the authors chart professors’ self-described political leanings. In the early 1990s, liberal professors outnumbered conservatives by 2-to-1. By 2011, liberals outnumbered conservatives by 5-to-1. In certain fields, the lopsidedness was even more extreme. In academic psychology, it went from 4-to-1 in the 1990s to 17-to-1 in 2016.

The authors worry that this reduces the quality of debates and research at universities. Even when liberals outnumber conservatives 2-to-1, there is more opportunity to disconfirm biases. As the ratio grows, that opportunity shrinks. This feeds the third falsehood, they argue—that “life is a battle between good and evil people.” When one way of looking at the world dominates a community, suggest the authors, it is far easier to demonize those who hold different beliefs, rather than look at them as humans with sincere but different moral convictions. This is an insight confirmed by a great deal of research.

Where did safety culture come from?
One of the most important observations in the book is that safetyism is not most prevalent among the millennial generation, as is often assumed, but among the so-called “iGen,” borrowing social psychologist Jean Twenge’s phrase for young adults born around 1995 who have grown up immersed with the Internet.

However, this is where the book is weakest. When analyzing the social forces that have pushed iGen towards safetyism, Haidt and Lukianoff depart from the empiricism that guides the rest of their book. The explanations offered are certainly plausible, but there has not been extensive research on the topic.

The authors cite six social forces that are bearing down on the iGen: a “polarization cycle” driven by partisan exploitation of events on campus, an increase in anxiety and depression, overparenting, a decline of unsupervised play, an expanding campus bureaucracy, and a philosophy that sometimes encourages polarization and tribalism.

According to the authors, all of these factors are making students more anxious and less mentally resilient. As a result, they are less able to process opposing political views.

Indeed, Jennifer Shannon, a cognitive-behavioral therapist and expert on anxiety disorders, noted shortly after the 2016 election that failing to properly deal with anxiety as it relates to politics can lead to anti-social behavior. “We may try to vent our emotions by demonizing and name calling,” she notes in a blog post on the Anxiety and Depression Association of America website. “We may check our preferred news feeds obsessively, looking for evidence that we are right. We may avoid listening to views not our own, or even avoid interacting with others who have different political beliefs altogether.”

All of this is compounded by the rise of social media, which the authors argue promotes unhealthy ways of engaging in democratic debate:

By the 2010s, most Americans were using social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, which make it easy to encase oneself within an echo chamber. Both the physical and electronic isolation from people we disagree with allows the forces of confirmation bias, groupthink, and tribalism to push us still further apart.

People are also encouraged and given incentives to not just disagree with each other, but to publicly “call out” ideological opponents; doing so earns virtual likes and retweets.

The problem with these explanations is that they are only speculations. The social forces they cite are bearing down on millions of young people, but the incidents of hypersensitivity they cite affect a relatively small group. Drawing a direct line between overparenting or an increase in college administrative staff and an assault of a professor at Middlebury College is simply too bold in the absence of rigorous research.

Raising resilient students
While Haidt and Lukianoff may overreach by trying to definitively name the culprits that gave rise to safety culture, they offer well-grounded advice to parents and the academy about how to cultivate resiliency in students. In identifying an inability to cope with anxiety as a defining feature of safetyism, they prescribe a set of solutions designed to make students more capable of addressing the challenges they will face on a college campus and beyond.

For parents, the authors suggest they cut back on overprotecting, overscheduling, and overparenting their children. They suggest letting kids walk or bike to school at the earliest age possible, sending them to an overnight camp, and encouraging them to freely play with other kids without excessive adult supervision. Haidt and Lukianoff believe these steps will boost the mental resilience of children, rather than making them feel like they need to seek out an authority to resolve conflicts for them.

They also advise parents to teach their kids the basics of cognitive behavioral therapy, so they may learn to talk back to exaggerated thoughts and contextualize them. The authors want schools to cut back on homework in the early years and expand unsupervised recess. They also suggest strictly limiting kids’ screen time.

Finally, they propose that America’s colleges and universities embrace the approach offered by the University of Chicago in an official statement it made in 2015. The statement embraces the concepts of free speech and diversity of thought, and rejects any university attempt to suppress those ideals. As of this writing, around 40 institutions have endorsed the Chicago Statement. The authors suggest a practical guide to what the speech environment on campus should look like: the First Amendment—after all, that’s what it looks like off campus, where students will have to cope with life after college.

One of the most important pieces of advice the authors have for universities is to simply stand their ground when faced with demands by students who are engaging in what is clearly catastrophic or dichotomous thinking—while at the same time engaging in respectful conversations about the issues that concern them.

Take the example of the incident at CMC. The university could have told the students, “We understand you’re upset, but Dean Spellman was making a legitimate attempt to hear you out, and she sympathizes with your concerns. We will arrange a working group to meet with all of you and consider reforms, but we will not be sanctioning or firing Dean Spellman.” This would have promoted a healthy dialogue that could have produced holistic solutions—not a zero-sum game between Spellman and student activists.

Haidt and Lukianoff’s book is likely to promote much debate. Some of their conclusions are well-founded, and others are perhaps a bit too hasty, but the authors make a sincere attempt to grapple with changing norms around political speech on campus. Most of their critics are likely to come from the political left, which most closely identifies with today’s student activists. But the authors find inspiration in the words of a prominent progressive, CNN’s Van Jones, in remarks he made during a 2017 event:

The idea of being physically safe on campus—not being subjected to sexual harassment and physical abuse, or being targeted specifically, personally, for some kind of hate speech—‘you are an n-word,’ or whatever—I’m perfectly fine with that. But there’s another view that is now ascendant, which I think is a horrible view, which is that ‘I need to be safe ideologically. I need to be safe emotionally. I just need to feel good all the time, and if someone says something that I don’t like, that’s a problem for everybody else including the administration.’ I think that is a terrible idea for the following reason: I don’t want you to be safe, ideologically. I don’t want you to be safe, emotionally. I want you to be strong. That’s different.