Panel to examine free speech, self-censorship at UNC

Panel to examine free speech, self-censorship at UNC

- in Higher Ed, News, Top Story
Image: Creative Commons

Like many colleges and university systems across the country, UNC has long been embroiled in a debate about free speech on campuses. In a politically volatile era in which extremist views have gone mainstream, the extent of free speech disagreements at UNC campuses is unclear, as are potential solutions.

On Sept 13, UNC-Chapel Hill’s Program for Public Discourse will hold the university’s first student-centered discussion on the issue. “Can We Talk? Student Thoughts on Free Expression at UNC,” was sparked by a series of surveys about free speech — surveys that themselves have become controversial.

The panel will be held at 5:30 p.m. in Room 109 at Fetzer Hall at UNC-Chapel Hill and will be streamed online. Those interested can register here.

UNC-Chapel Hill professor Mark McNeilly, an outspoken conservative, will moderate the panel. McNeilly is on a team of researchers, including Timothy Ryan and Jennifer Larson, who launched a study at Chapel Hill that examined free speech issues on campus, Policy Watch has reported,

Last year Ryan’s team —  now including UNC-Greensboro political science professor Andrew Engelhardt — began expanding its work. Earlier this year, in addition to the system’s flagship campus at Chapel Hill, the team surveyed students at Appalachian State University, N.C. Central University, UNC-Asheville, UNC-Charlotte, UNC-Greensboro, UNC-Pembroke and UNC-Wilmington. Students answered core questions given to all participants and a smaller set of questions administered only to students at their respective institutions.

Professor Mark McNeilly

Those skeptical of the study point to low survey response rates, especially at historically minority-serving institutions. While the 2019 UNC-Chapel Hill survey got a 26% response rate, the response rate fell to 11% in the 2022 round. The rate was notably higher at UNC-Asheville (17.5%) but lower at all the other campuses. The lowest response rates came from N.C. Central University (3.7%), a historically Black campus, and UNC-Pembroke (5.6%), the system’s only historically American Indian university.

The average response rate across all campuses was 7.9%.

It is important for students, not only academic experts to address the issue, McNeilly said. “You can read data, but hearing people’s words and seeing them speak really adds some insight,” McNeilly said. “You can think of students in the abstract, as data, but these are real students who go to UNC. I expect some of what they have to say will be consistent with the research and some of it will not be consistent.”

Four undergraduate students will join McNeilly for the discussion: Aidan Buehler, a philosophy and economics major; Nathan Gibson, who is majoring in political science major; Cho Nikoi, a history major; and Maddux Vernon, who is double-majoring in political science and Peace, War & Defense.

However, only one of the panelists, Nikoi, is Black.

In organizing the panel, McNeilly said, it was important to get “as much diversity as possible – which is hard with just four people.”

It was also important, he said, not to make students feel as though they had to solely represent  their race or ethnicity, their gender, their political position. Instead, he said, he hopes to have a discussion of the issues that will center student voices and experiences – less of a debate and more of a true conversation.

Student voices, public discussions

Nathan Gibson

Nathan Gibson said he’s experienced an environment at UNC-Chapel Hill that has made him feel hesitant about openly sharing his political views. As the new editor of the campus conservative and libertarian journal Carolina Review, he said fellow conservatives warned him that liberal professors might try to sway him politically.

Instead Gibson said some fellow students have preconceived notions about him. “You get nervous about blowback from other students,” Gibson said. “There is a predominantly liberal culture and I think that kind of elicits a natural fear in a lot of conservative students.” Gibson’s sentiments were common among conservatives in the recent surveys. The results showed students, especially conservatives, who are in the minority on most UNC campuses, reported self-censoring in conversation for fear of being ostracized by their peers.

Students who self-identified as liberal were less likely to want friendships with those who disagreed with them politically.

The study’s authors wrote that in some political conversations, students are more likely to “engage in conversations that focus on agreement, that occur in social settings, that include relatively fewer people, and that build rapport with their conversation partners.

“Similarly, campus events that emphasize consensus focused over adversarial conversations are more appealing to students, especially to those students who show higher levels of open-mindedness.”

But it also dispelled the myth that faculty members push liberal political views. Nor do students who responded feel professors try to indoctrinate students with their own world views. Most students, the study found, leave college with much the same political views as when they entered.

Around this time last year, NC Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger used the initial survey results to dismiss criticism of the influence of the General Assembly’s GOP majority on the UNC system.

“These perpetual malcontents should examine why 68% of conservative students at UNC reported self-censoring their views in class,” said Lauren Horsch, Berger’s spokeswoman, in a statement. “Perhaps it has something to do with top university staff putting to paper their desire to extinguish viewpoint diversity.”

Faculty and staff said that isn’t true. The study’s authors said they disliked that portions of their research have been cherry-picked by partisans who ignore the pieces of their study that don’t fit their agenda.

Last week Dr. William Sturkey, a history professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, addressed that in a video interview with the Coalition for Carolina, a group of faculty, staff, students and alumni who oppose continued political interference at the university.

“The one thing that was very striking about the survey … was how few students actually took it,” Sturkey said. “So, a very, very small minority of students actually responded to the survey. If this was a major crisis on our campuses, I imagine that more than 11 or 12% of students across the system would have actually responded to the survey.”

“The other thing was that the survey really corrected a lot of misconceptions,” Sturkey said. “Students overwhelmingly said that professors don’t take hard political stances in classes…We’re often accused of on cable news and the Internet, people constantly talking about indoctrination on our college campuses. I think that what people have really latched on to, now that this indoctrination issue has been disproven, is that students self-censor.”

But everyone self-censors to some extent, Sturkey said. “And that’s not just out of respect for other people’s views, but that’s out of worrying about what the consequences of saying whatever pops into your head is going to have on your social standing. And so, I just think it’s really bizarre that we take a very common social practice, and we say that this is a crisis in higher education when it’s something that we do in every walk of life, in every institution, every organization in our society. You should not say every single thing that pops up into your mind.”

But Gibson said the pressure conservatives on campus feel goes well beyond the normal social self-censoring. Carolina Review’s website was hacked last year and more than a decade of archives were deleted, he said, The publication’s distribution boxes on and around campus are routinely defaced with graffiti calling them Nazis and racists, he said.

Liberal students on campus don’t defend that behavior, but say they’ve faced their own more serious problems, including being surveilled and threatened by white supremacists who objected to their protests of the Silent Sam conservative monument.

Cho Nikoi

Cho Nikoi, another of the student panelists for the upcoming conversation, said that as a Black woman on campus she often feels confused about why the concerns of students of color can be ignored for generations, when conservative students feel isolated for their views, it is treated as a crisis.

“There’s a weird irony where the people who are the most vocal about free expression are from these more conservative- or libertarian-leaning demographics and they’re also the ones who want to run to the institution to protect their feelings,” Nikoi said.

Conservative students bemoan the fact, as shown in the research, that liberal students are less likely to befriend conservatives, Nikoi said. But they don’t tend to deeply examine why. Many of the hot-button issues about which they enjoy writing or debating, such as abortion, racial issues and LGBTQ rights, are essentially academic exercises for a conservative student population that skews straight, white and male.

But these are real, lived experiences for students from traditionally marginalized groups. If someone is fond of voicing political opinions that deny the existence or rights of certain groups or belittle their culture, Nikoi said, they shouldn’t be surprised if those people don’t want to be friends.

“While socialization is important and you can’t deny alienation or ostracization have effects on personal development, you don’t have a right to have people like you,” Nikoi said. “Your right is to not be silenced or censored by the government.”

A chilling effect?

Student panelist Aidan Buehler said has seen students’ reticence to discuss sensitive issues on campus. That can chill potentially interesting classroom discussions and debates, he said, which hinders learning about different points of view.

Aidan Buehler

For example, Buehler took a Philosophy of Religion class that included interesting readings and a professor who encouraged participation, he said. But he noticed an important aspect of the class was missing.

“Very few people, if any, with sincere religious convictions defended them or spoke openly about them in conversations,” he said. “It wasn’t because there was anything in that class to suggest, ‘Oh, if you express this opinion you’re going to be shouted down or canceled or the professor is not going to take you seriously,’ – again, it was a very good class. I don’t think there was any of that. But just he sense that this is not the position most people hold…but there was something at least that made students hesitate to be like, ‘Yeah, I believe in God.’”

Sturkey, the history professor, addressed this issue in his discussion with the Coalition for Carolina. Students feeling unprepared or unwilling to defend their sincerely held views might be a problem, he said, but that needs to be addressed well before they get to campus.

“Why don’t the students come prepared to defend their views?” Sturkey said. “I’ve been that student who had an unpopular opinion in class and argued with conviction, even though I had 13, 14, 15 people telling me I was wrong. And yeah, you’re not the most popular person that day, but at the same time, I didn’t necessarily blame them because I couldn’t go share my views.”

“You know, I think that it’s a bizarre thing that we don’t allow students to openly debate in middle school, in high school, or in their churches or in their family room, you know, their family dining room tables,” Sturkey said. “And then all of a sudden, we expect colleges to open this realm of open debate. It makes no sense at all. I would love for some of these ideas to be applied to private high schools and churches, and even family settings, and then ask people, how often do you self-censor in those settings? Because I bet it’s just as much, if not a lot more than institutions of higher education, like the University of North Carolina.”

Each of the student panelists with whom Policy Watch spoke said they believe social media has played a role in young people isolating themselves into social groups where they largely agree with everyone and rarely encounter challenges to their own ideas.

On social media, people become accustomed to criticizing and debating others anonymously rather than engaging them as real people, the students said. Online, it’s much easier to reduce someone to one opinion and to treat political and social discourse as sports, in which you choose and continue to back one team, they said.

“Overall it’s just entitlement to being right,” Gibson said. “I’m definitely wrong about stuff. I’m assuming everyone else is wrong about something. I think people should just overall be less confident they’re right all the time. That’s what makes people feel they’re so right they can silence others or berate them for having a different opinion.”