Young liberals are abandoning it — and other groups are too comfortable with tit-for-tat hypocrisy
Another possibility is that the change is driven by the nature of speech in the age of the internet. Having a speaker come to a campus is no longer primarily about allowing people on campus to hear the speaker's ideas. If students want to hear the ideas of, say, Ben Shapiro, there are thousands of videos and recordings on YouTube and every podcasting service. Having him speak on your campus is arguably more about symbolism -- showing that a critical mass of students support him -- than about allowing students the chance to hear his ideas.
Students today may simply take for granted that everybody has all the access they need to all the ideas they could possibly want to be exposed to, and not perceive the shutting down of a speaker in the same way that earlier generations did.
Good article/analysis. I've taught free speech at UC Santa Cruz for almost two decades. For the past five years, there has, without question, been less support for free speech. Anecdotally, I think the pendulum is swinging back in response to book bans in Florida and overreach of cancel culture. Ultimately, however, what I tell people is that it isn't that the students don't support speech but that they don't believe in the institutions responsible for protecting speech (ie courts, universities and governments). If you see no role for precedent, then why would you support opposing speech -- a version of #5. If institutions are corrupt, then protecting the speech you hate, will not protect the speech you love.
Something that I have heard a lot from friends who are less libertarian/pro-free-speech than I am, is the difference between "speech" and "platform". That point of view goes something like this:
You can say whatever you want and shouldn't be arrested for it.
However, you can't come into my living room and say things that I don't like without me, potentially, kicking you out. (This seems obviously true -- it is my living room). What if the neighborhood bar that suddenly decides to host "We Hate Black People And Love Nazis" night -- are you obligated to keep drinking there? (Probably not -- it is your money) Is it OK to let the owner know why? What if you get together with your friends and let everyone in the neighborhood know why?
Is talking shit on Twitter more like publishing a newspaper (fine, whatever) or hosting Nazis in the neighborhood bar (eeeh there are consequences)? (Is Twitter like the US Government or like a bar?) What about inviting a speaker to campus? It is easy to argue that anyone is free to espouse controversial ideas and publish a podcast on them without a campus invitation. The speech is free. Whether the university should provide them with a platform is a different story, especially since university tuition is ludicrously high and a lot of it goes to student groups.
I think that's where some of the disagreement lies. When I was in college a decade ago, I was mostly busy doing math stuff. I agree that it is a slippery slope, but seems worth mentioning.
I was in college when debates about teaching “creation science” were raging. I attended invited talks by creationists. I think I learned more from those talks and the discussions they sparked than I did from all the bio classes I took (I was a bio major). Understanding creationism helped clarify for me what makes scientific knowledge unique and why that matters.
I really can’t think of a better way to learn about a topic than to grapple deeply with criticism of that topic. If students never have to confront opposing views I think they are losing out big time.
I recently transferred from the university of massachusetts to the university of southern mississippi and the general attitude difference is like night and day. The peer pressure for conformity and the sheer intolerance for anything confrontational I encountered in Massachusetts was bewildering. At USM political engagement is much lower and as such there’s wayyy less vitriol in general, not to mention that southern hospitality means that you’ll probably at least be allowed to finish expressing your opinion before hearing a rebuttal (rather than interruption and insults)
I think a major reason this is becoming more of a problem now is technology. Gen Z grew up with social media and there is a ton of toxicity on there. When kids hear free speech they picture the vitriol their racist uncle spews on Facebook or the millions of anonymous posts on on the many Reddit spinoffs.
This is an extremely bad take on data. Literally every "Conservative" opinion polled is that some portion of the study body doesn't deserve human rights: trans, women, black folks. A speaker whose objective is to explain how some portion of people aren't full people is very different than a topic impacting objects (guns), institutions (religion), or structural features of society.
Like literally, the Liberal students seem to have a clear priority on not tolerating speech that dehumanizes people in the audience. That's not a terrible standard.
This is such a bad "both sides" type of take. Read Popper's explanations on tolerance: the one kind of tolerance you can't have is tolerance toward intolerance, as it implies eliminating people from society, and with it eliminating tolerance writ large.
These reasons for lower free speech support seem largely true to my post-college demographic peers (millennials) too!
However, here two additional reasons that play an important role.
1. Social media and digital chatrooms structurally encourage less tolerance for free speech.
Community moderation involves banning and punishing speech that doesn't fit with the guidelines. For Twitch, Discord, and Reddit chats, not doing good enough community moderation can result in bans for the streams/rooms themselves. This encourages a mindset that 'some speech is not acceptable'. Those who agree with the rules, or see them as good for the community, will naturally see them as good to apply elsewhere, to larger communities or to real life ones.
In the past, few would be exposed to situations where they're actively 'moderating' what others say, outside of the Thanksgiving table or perhaps at the work water cooler. But now, the younger generations (Millennials, Zoomers, Alpha) are growing up thinking about this all the time -- and through a lens that doesn't encourage a lot of free speech friendliness.
I've noticed that right-wing online groups and movements tend to be more 'okay' with free speech, but instead police their communities with harrassment and death threats. While slower to ban for having heterodox opinions, moderators from those areas are also more likely to simply admit that their ban was based on annoyance rather than the user breaking any defined rules. I wonder if this is how Elon Musk can see himself as a free speech absolutist, but also feel comfortable deplatforming people for petty personal reasons.
2. Corporations don't support free speech at all, and these values reflect onto workers that have fewer protections and more exposure.
This isn't about the rules that Discord, Twitch, YouTube, and others enforce on their users. Nor is it about legal liability that corporations face for disciminatory speech -- along with cell phone recording tech that makes proof much easier to capture. Nor is it about increased DEI and inclusivity initiatives, that can include sharp punishments for those that get on board. All of those seem symptomatic, downstream!
Instead, the issue is that companies already can fire at-will for saying things critical of the company or acting poorly on social media. My generation was taught that even to get hired, social media profiles should be turned private, or fully santized of any objectionable content to get a job. This was all true in the 2000s already, during the rise of social media. It's more true today now that tech literacy has expanded to older generations.
If a person can lose their livelihood at any time for saying something critical of the company publicly -- or even being too annoying internally -- or really, for any reason! -- then that again creates an understanding that "free speech isn't really valued in practice".
The friends I have that are most uptight about policing speech (most likely to shut down topics they don't like, and advocate for sharper speech limits) are those that work in service professions. They directly talk to customers daily who could complain about them and get them fired -- requiring careful, constant self-policing of speech. These are also often very exposed jobs, with at-will contracts where they can be easily fired. They might not even be full-time employees, working on contracts or as part of a gig economy -- if the company dislikes them, they are easily replaced.
My right-leaning friends tend to direct their ire at 'woke' policies for putting them at risk if they speak up about their perspectives, especially if they're critical of diversity or inclusion initiatives. On the other hand, my left-leaning friends tend to like that they have a little bit of protection -- if they speak in very inclusive and generically 'not bad' ways, then this can protect them from getting fired as easily. But, say, try to start a union at Amazon or Starbucks, or openly discuss corruption or abusive business practices, and it doesn't matter which side of the political spectrum you're on. Further, if those diversity or inclusion initiatives are being abused to favor certain internal factions, then again, pointing this out doesn't matter if it's from right or left. It's the same as the well known fact that if you complain about your boss to HR -- even for justified reasons -- you'll find yourself fired for 'unrelated' reasons soon after.
The left-leaning perspective seems to be that if they don't get free speech -- and only the thinnest protections by corporations -- then it's not all that important to fight to protect it for others. If anything, online people being obnoxious and threatening those very thing protections is something to oppose and deplatform. The right of 'free speech' doesn't apply at all to them personally, and likely never will, at least when it comes to their jobs or public online profiles.
I would think the pivot of free speech from progressive to conservatives would be at least somewhat explained by who has the power to censor?
When conservatives controlled the “cultural heights”, progressives wanted free speech
Now progressives have the power, they don’t care about free speech anymore, but conservatives suddenly do
In 1997, after Ellen came out as gay, ABC put a parental advisory at the start of each episode if I can trust Wikipedia. Things have changed
So it's not that free speech is in trouble, it's that there is no diversity of thinking from the Left. The most telling charts above showed me what I already knew -- conservatives are open to hearing on controversial view points (conservative or liberal), but the liberal side is absolutely not open to conservative controversial view points.
"Free speech" is too subjective to me, because from the Left's side there is nothing wrong with shutting down controversial speakers because those speakers are pushing ideas which are anti-social at best, violent at worst. If you were to ask a Left leaning person in this view point if they are attacking "free speech" they would say they aren't, they are shutting down "hate" speach and this is absolutely legal. Free speech is speech which is acceptable. What you need to do is ask them how they feel about controversial speakers. That might actually break into their posture, but not the word "free". They have no concept of "free". "Free" is not as important as "safe" to them.
Totally speculating here, but as a liberal myself, my guess is that this comes down to two factors:
1) There is a consensus among young liberals that certain ideas (e.g. denial of trans rights) are so utterly abhorrent that they must be actively fought by any and all means.
2) On top of that, young liberals believe that those ideas may well be implemented in the near future.
As a test of (1), I would propose that researchers include a question along the lines of:
"Race-based slavery should be re-established in the United States"
My hypothesis is that you'd see equal numbers of opposition among liberal and conservative students, with liberals putting it in the same "bin" with the others, while conservatives would consider it a uniquely horrific outlier.
Biden got elected at least in part *because* free speech was restricted w/r/t the Hunter Biden laptop story; that's your answer to "what changed in 2020 to make liberals like censorship more?"
Something about this doesn't pass the smell test, to me? A quarter of "Very Conservative" students would oppose letting a Pro-lifer speak? A third want to prevent the "Anti-BLM" speaker? I'm not saying FIRE had some agenda. It just seems off.
Great post as always.
One thing I would add is that at UPenn much of the donor anger is driven by the fact that the president of the university choose NOT to prevent a controversial Palestinian activist from speaking at a campus event. They very clearly would have preferred a much more repressive free speech position from university admin.
It seems like there’s a big tent “anti-ivy league” coalition with sub-groups who have preferred policy outcomes that are diametrically opposed. Interesting to see how this plays out.
as children, my fellow Gen Zers and I were taught that freedom of speech simply means “the government can not prosecute you for things you say.”
This is a barebones definition of free speech, and I think it’s the best way of defining it. It seems today that controversial figures want to use “freedom of speech” to merely mean “freedom from consequences over saying hateful/incorrect things.”
I think you would be hard pressed to find even the most radical leftist/liberal students advocating for “we should put racists in prison” or “spreading disinformation should be considered a criminal act”
I believe that’s why young people are so willing to restrict so-called “freedom of speech”, because quite simply we do not believe anything other than criminally charging people for speech would count as a “restriction on free speech”.
Young people, including me, also subscribe to the idea of the “paradox of tolerance” which is that in order to truly preserve a tolerant society, we must be intolerant of intolerance and remove those attempting to spread hate in the public domain from said domain.
Because at the end of the day, what is more important? Freedom to say hateful things or the freedom FROM being subjected to hateful discourse? I don’t want to live in a world where rape is up for debate. I don’t want to live in a world where murder is up for debate, and I refuse to be expected to “hear out” those that are sharing clear and dangerous ideologies. A country where the free speech rights of Nazis, white supremacists, conspiracy theorists and other extremists are restricted is a country I would find safer and healthier to raise children in than one where they are allowed space in the public discourse. If that is “anti-free speech” then “free speech” quite simply is not a virtue to hold up without question.
The problem with this survey and the argument you're making is that the 3 conservative examples of "free speech" would all lead to violence against people (particularly oppressed people), whereas the 3 liberal examples would have no suche effects. Conservative speech has actually encouraged extremist violence in the United States. People who want to deplatform these ideas, and think that college campuses in particular should actively denounce these ideas, are not just against conservative ideas because they disagree with them; they are against them because these ideas actually encourage violence.