Opinion: Nearly 1 in 10 College Students Have Been Threatened with Punishment for Their Speech, New Study Shows

Ignited by the attack on Israel by Hamas terrorists, a new wave of campus censorship has erupted during divisive domestic conversations. However, the issue of stifled speech on campus for both faculty members and students has been around long before October 7.

According to a survey by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), around 1 in 10 college students say they have been threatened with disciplinary action — or, far worse, been disciplined — for their allegedly ‘free’ speech.

The 2022 survey, conducted with college faculty, yielded similar results. Around one in six professors reported they have either been threatened with punishment or had been investigated for their free speech or academic freedom.

This is rarely discussed, but it is a common thread that links the oppressive atmosphere on campuses to university and college administrations.

This situation will likely continue as long as censor-happy administrators have disproportionate control and power over higher education.

In the student survey conducted by College Pulse between September 5 and October 20, students answered questions about the disciplinary process and their experiences with speech. Three percent responded that they had been punished for their speech, with 6% saying they had been threatened with punishment.

Consider the scope that number extends out into the larger student population. With the country’s total undergraduate population, well over a million students are being threatened, or worse, by campus bureaucrats for their speech. It means students are about as likely to face disciplinary censorship as they will likely be born left-handed.

According to the study, what kind of speech can you expect to be investigated for? For a student from New York University, it was participation in a pro-Palestinian group. A student from the University of Pennsylvania was expressing the opinion that the United States was right to invade Iraq. For a student at Drake University, it was being overheard by classmates telling a professor about her mental health.

The survey revealed students should be cautious about what they say, even in the most private locations of those threatened with disciplinary actions or disciplined, a quarter faced punishment for freedom of speech in their dorm room. While focusing on private living spaces is disturbing, it isn’t unusual.

For all 24 years of FIRE’s existence, administrators of “residential life” who run the dorms have been significant enforcers of university speech codes.

Although the situation is terrible for students, it’s even worse for educators. The political diversity of faculty has never been lower. Some departments have left-leaning supermajorities, while others have no conservative members of faculty at all. With those statistics, you would think professors wouldn’t be frequently targeted, but you would be wrong.

As mentioned in the new book, “The Canceling of the American Mind,” by Rikki and Lukianoff Schlott, since 2014, we know of over 1,000 attempts to get professors sanctioned for their research or speech.

Around two-thirds of those attempts were successful, resulting in the punishment of some form, along with 200 fired professors. The number overshadows any period in American higher education history since the early ‘70s when the Supreme Court solidified freedom of speech as a right on college and university campuses as a particular concern contained in that right.

So, how did administrators respond when facing a cancel culture that targets faculty and students? With political litmus tests that encourage and enable the purge of students and faculty.

Over half of the country’s large universities require “diversity, equity, and inclusion” statements, many of which were often vague and pressured professors to adhere to the dominant ideology on campus. Wherever they appear, from faculty post-tenure review to student admissions, these requirements underscore the ideological status quo, increase the risk of today’s curriculum being considered dogma tomorrow, and suppress viewpoint diversity.

One place the litmus tests appear is when hiring additional administrators. At most schools, administrators, not faculty, determine what occurs, when it happens, and how much to spend to do it.
At Yale University, there is a one-to-one ratio of administrators to students. Harvard University is just a little behind. At the top 50 schools in the country per U.S. News & World Report, there are three times as many non-instructional staff and administrators as there are faculty, according to the Progressive Policy Institute’s recent report.

One might believe hiring would be slowing, with the looming “enrollment cliff” — where college-age students shift lower because of lower birth rates. But that has never stopped colleges before. From 2015 to 2018, administrative staff grew by over 6% when instructional employees and enrollment declined. The surge in non-teaching positions is one of the crucial reasons the cost of educating a single student has increased so dramatically over the past several decades.

To make matters even worse, many of the newly hired administrators consider policing the speech of faculty and students to be a part of their job. DEI administrators have been involved in several of the most high-profile cancellations, including federal Judge Kyle Duncan at Stanford this year, Carole Hooven, a Harvard professor, last year, and Professor Charles Negy at the University of Central Florida in 2021.

The free speech on campus situation has gone from bad to worse over the past decade and will be no easy feat to fix. One of the first steps that must be taken to make sure campuses are more accessible and less expensive is to dramatically decrease campus bureaucracy, eliminate positions that only exist to police speech, and ensure every employee of a university is informed their job is to protect academic freedom and free speech — not crush it.