The Volokh Conspiracy

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Free Speech

Nate Silver's "Free Speech Is in Trouble"


An excellent article about a recent survey of college students, by a man who knows a thing or two about surveys. A couple of short excerpts, though you should read the whole thing:

[A]fter seeing the latest polling on what college students think about free speech, I don't concern over "cancel culture" or the erosion of free speech norms is just some moral panic. In fact, I think people are neglecting how quick and broad the shifts have been, especially on the left….

College students aren't very enthusiastic about free speech. In particular, that's true for liberal or left-wing students, who are at best inconsistent in their support of free speech and have very little tolerance for controversial speech they disagree with.

Moreover, this attitude is broad-based — not just at elite schools. I was frankly surprised at how tepid student support was. A significant minority of students don't even have much tolerance for controversial speech on positions they presumably agree with….

People obviously have strong feelings about abortion, and a complete abortion ban is unpopular. Still, this is a commonly-articulated, garden-variety unpopular political opinion that doesn't make any sort of factual claim and can't reasonably be construed as hateful. You'd think even students with a tentative, half-baked belief in free speech principles would tolerate it. And yet, 57 percent of students — including 68 percent of liberals — thought a speaker expressing this anti-abortion viewpoint shouldn't be allowed on campus. That number kind of shocked me….

[I]s there a lot of hypocrisy around free speech? Of course there is. Republicans who rail against wokeness put significant limits of their own on academic freedom. Supposed "free speech absolutist" Elon Musk has often taken a censorious approach toward content he doesn't like while tolerating censorship by foreign governments.

While I've somehow made it this far without using the words "Israel" or "Palestine", recent international events have uncovered instances of hypocrisy too. I have no interest in refereeing every incident, but cases like this — in which editor-in-chief Michael Eisen was fired from the life sciences journal eLife for retweeting an Onion article that expressed sympathy with Palestinians — fall under any definition of "cancel culture"….

And although I'm not sure I have any business talking to college students — although I have delivered a number of guest lectures and commencement addresses — if I were, I'd use this as a teaching moment, telling students that now that they've found out what it's like to stand up for a controversial, unpopular position, I'd hope they'd be more respectful of the rights of others to do the same.

Because unless someone is willing to do that — to defend free speech in a principled, non-hypocritical way — the game theory says it's just going to be a race to the bottom. And given the increasingly tenuous commitment to it in many corners of American society, free speech is going to lose out.

Thanks to the Media Law Resource Center (MLRC) MediaLawDaily for the pointer.