Survey finds that free speech for Greek life members is at risk on college campuses

After surveying thousands of college students nationwide, RealClearEducation found that there is currently a “troubled climate” of free speech on college campuses with students associated with greek life.

Only 38% of students who responded felt they would be comfortable “publicly disagreeing with a professor about a controversial topic.”

After surveying thousands of college students nationwide, RealClearEducation found that there is currently a “troubled climate” of free speech on college campuses with students associated with greek life.

RealClearEducation partnered with the opinion research firm Slingshot Strategies to survey 4,620 college students involved with greek life and generated a report card comparing freedom of speech on campuses across the country. Of those surveyed, 1,805 were fraternity members and 2,815 were sorority members from over 500 colleges and universities located across 36 states. 

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Participants responded to an online questionnaire between June 1 and September 1, 2020. They self-reported their political affiliation which resulted in 46% of respondents identifying as “liberal,” 33% as “conservative” and 21% as “moderate.”

Students were asked questions related to “personal freedoms” on campus which RealClearEducation defined as, “the degree to which political and personal views—particularly, unpopular or controversial ones—can be expressed freely and honestly.”

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When asked to select what topics are “difficult to have an open and honest conversation about on your campus,” students chose Race (55%), Abortion (54%) and Gun Control (53%) as the three most difficult to discuss. Feminism and religion tied for the third least difficult at 39% while Affirmative Action (35%) and The Israeli/Palestinian conflict (34%) took second and first least difficult, respectively.  

Participants were then asked how “comfortable” they would feel “publicly disagreeing with a professor about a controversial topic.” 38% said they would be comfortable with it while 60% said they would be uncomfortable.

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Texas A&M University Pi Beta Phi member Cristina Bills told Campus Reform that she would be “somewhat comfortable” with disagreeing with a professor. Her hesitation stems from the risk of being “targeted” by fellow students and the professor himself as well as public speaking. 

However, if it were something she “strongly disagreed with,” she would engage the professor. 

“If it truly infringed on my beliefs, I think I would raise my hand in the moment and talk publicly and engage in discussion with the class because more often than we think, there’s probably someone that is thinking the same thing we are!,” Bills said.

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Baylor University Alpha Phi member Morgan Tate told Campus Reform that she also would be “somewhat comfortable” with this situation because “Baylor’s environment is pretty open to discussion.”

“I also think there’s almost always a place you can both find middle ground in and at the end of the day you might as well put your side into the discussion because its likely neither of you will change your minds and thats okay,” Tate continued.

This ratio flipped when the hypothetical disagreement changed to peer-to-peer. 60% of students surveyed responded that they would be comfortable “discussing a controversial political topic” with classmates while 39% admitted that they would be uncomfortable. 

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Bills' answering “very comfortable” to this question posed by Campus Reform followed this trend. 

“It’s hard to have good conversations these days as most people don’t talk to others that they disagree with & see where they’re coming from & just shut them down when they hear something they don’t believe in. It’s super important to speak about controversial topics going on & being in the know about things & educating one another on what’s right,” Bills explained.

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RealClearEducation also asked students about free speech levels on social media. When asked how comfortable they are “expressing an unpopular opinion on a social media account tied to your name,” only 29% of respondents said they would be comfortable doing so. 

Vice president of Lambda Chi Alpha at Texas A&M Ben Lilly told Campus Reform that he is “very comfortable” with expressing his opinion on social media. 

“One of the reasons I joined a fraternity was because a lot of my views are shared in the greek community so I knew that I’d be around like minded people,” Lilly said.

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University of Texas’ Zeta Tau Alpha chapter member McKenna Downey did not echo this sentiment when she told Campus Reform, “I don’t want the labels and harsh criticism because social media is so political nowadays and for me it’s more about sharing life updates.”

Participants were asked if their college administration “make[s] it clear to students that free speech is protected” on campus. 53% said “Yes,” 26% said “No,” and 21% said “Not Sure.” 

Lilly said that he feels Texas A&M does a “good job at making it clear that our speech is protected.”

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However, 50% of survey respondents admitted that they felt they could not “express their opinion on a subject because of how students, a professor, or the administration would respond.”

Downey told Campus Reform that she “definitely” feels this way. 

“I have professors who impose their political beliefs on us, whether it be conservative or liberal ideologies. In these classes, it’s hard to say your own beliefs without criticism from the professors or students who share the same ideas. I fear to say my own beliefs because I don’t want them to put labels or judge my knowledge based on what ‘side’ I stand with,” she said.

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Similarly, more students (38%) believe that their college administration would “punish” the speaker of a campus event who sparked a “controversy over offensive speech” compared to only 23% who believe the speaker’s right to express his views would be “defend[ed].”

Kansas State University Kappa Alpha Theta member Elayna Anderson told Campus Reform that she believes her school’s administration would make a statement distancing itself from the speaker.

“They would probably make a statement saying how they apologize to the campus for bringing them in and that they don’t stand where the speaker stands. I don’t think they would actually do anything, but they would come out and say they don’t agree with them,” Anderson said.

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Campus Reform asked one of the report’s authors, Nathan Harden, how this state of free speech on college campuses will affect students once they graduate and enter the workforce.

“Whenever students are educated in a bubble, where they rarely encounter opposing views, they are not prepared to cope with real life. Learning to engage in respectful disagreement cultivates intellectual humility and a [sic] instills a greater sense of curiosity about the world. That doesn’t happen if students are afraid to speak up around professors or their peers,” he said. 

“College administrators have a responsibility to actively counter the culture of fear around speech that currently permeates our culture.”

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Harden recommended that prospective students and parents look at this report to “see how the schools that interest them stack up in the areas of free speech and freedom of association.” 

The tool can assist parents and students “decide where to make one of the biggest investments of time and money [they] will ever make,” he said, “If parents, students, and alumni vote with their feet and their pocketbooks, colleges will listen.”

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