May 21, 2019
By Jonathan Butcher

Ryan Wolfe doesn’t consider himself a victim. But as a junior at Wake Forest, when he walked off of the stage after speaking on the future of conservative politics and someone handed him a box of crackers, he took it as an insult.

Someone had already superimposed a picture of his face on a cracker and posted it to social media. The students who opposed his ideas “were trying to intimidate me and the other students on the panel,” Wolfe said in an interview.

“We could have hashed out these differences one-on-one,” he says, explaining that he would be willing to talk about the issues even with those he disagreed with.

Intimidation, shoutdowns, and violence are altogether too common on campuses today. And surveys show increasing numbers of students are okay with it, as long as they are the ones doing the intimidating.

A new Knight Foundation survey of college students finds more than half of respondents—51 percent—say it is “always” or “sometimes” appropriate to shout down a speaker or “prevent them from talking.” Another 16 percent find it is “always” or “sometimes” acceptable to use violence to “stop a speech protest or rally.”

The report’s authors describe the findings by saying “college students are generally unlikely to believe that shouting down speakers is acceptable,” but that anyone would think it is acceptable to silence someone else is troubling.

What if we were in the dark about censorship on campus? Nearly half of respondents said it is sometimes acceptable to deny the “news media access to cover protests or rallies on campus” (49 percent), and another 9 percent say the media should never be allowed to report on these events.

This is part of a disturbing trend. In a survey released last year by Knight, Gallup, and the American Council on Education (ACE), 10 percent of students approved of the use of violence to prevent someone from speaking “sometimes.”

In a survey of college presidents released in April 2018, ACE found that 15 percent of respondents said it was acceptable for college students to shout down speakers, though none approved of violence. 

While this year’s Knight survey seems to underestimate the significance of the polling figures on shoutdowns and violence, the report says “college students generally believe that people are too sensitive about the use of particular words and language. Students also widely agree that fear over offending their classmates prevents some students from expressing their views honestly.”

No surprise, then, that 68 percent of respondents said “their campus climate precludes students from expressing their true opinions because their classmates might find them offensive”—another response that showed an increase over last year’s survey.

These are not conditions that promote the pursuit of truth and the asking of difficult questions—the very things colleges should be promoting. President Trump has highlighted campus speech with an executive order, but such a directive opens the way for federal agencies to overstep their bounds and cannot be considered a final solution.

State lawmakers should consider proposals to abolish free-speech zones and other speech codes and be prepared to issue consequences for students who violate someone else’s right to be heard. As noted on this blog and elsewhere, officials in Arizona, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Georgia have done so, and legislators in Alabama and Texas are considering promising proposals this year.

The conclusion to Ryan Wolfe’s episode at Wake Forest is largely unsatisfying, though Ryan’s case attracted the attention of the Drudge Report and Tucker Carlson Tonight. But campus officials held a meeting with the students who opposed Ryan’s views and did not invite Ryan. The students who committed the racist actions were not sanctioned for their behavior.

“I would have been open to a conversation with them, but that was never an option that was presented for me,” Ryan said. “It speaks to the speech climate on campuses.” And if the Knight survey is any indication, more state lawmakers should act because student perspectives are following a troubling path.

Jonathan Butcher is a Senior Fellow at the Goldwater Institute.

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