PROMO Education - Graduates Graduation People School Degree Learning - iStock - nirat

Self-censoring on campus more common among Republican students

© iStock - nirat
Faith Fistler

(Ohio News Connection) During his freshman year at Kent State University, Nick Ditz found himself standing alone during an icebreaker activity in a classroom full of students. 

“One of the student teachers came to talk to me and it ended up going into a political discussion,” Ditz said.

A senior digital production major, Ditz self-identifies as a modern-age conservative on a liberal-leaning campus. With most in-class political discussions being dominated by liberal viewpoints, Ditz feels like he often must filter his opinions. 

Students who identify as Republicans were “the most reluctant to discuss controversial topics of race, gender and sexual orientation” on campus, according to a 2022 report by the Heterodox Academy, a nonprofit organization that seeks to improve viewpoint diversity in higher education. Most of these students cite fear of social retaliation from their peers. The organization surveyed 1,564 full-time college students across the country. Overall, the percentage of students who reported a reluctance to discuss at least one of five controversial topics (politics, religion, sexual orientation, race, gender) is still high at 58.8% but lower than the 60% of respondents who answered last year’s survey.

Kristen Shahverdian, senior manager of free expression and education at PEN America, works with universities on how to value free speech and inclusion. 

Shahverdian said that a student’s hesitation to speak up in class could be attributed to several reasons. 

“That could come from the perception that's out there, that's kind of feeding the story. In which case it creates a culture where people are thinking that whether or not it is in fact true,” Shahverdian said. “We've definitely heard, you know, it reported that some students fear that retaliation from each other, kind of through social media channels.”

Shahverdian said that the issue is an area of concern for universities because it means that diverse viewpoints aren’t being heard. 

“Higher education is working to build systems, to build people who are going to report and be a part of our democracy, who are going to be future, you know, thinking leaders and intellectual guides as we go forward,” she said. “And we want to have a diverse set of people who are grappling with understanding and really kind of contending across campus. That's how we build a diverse society.”

During the conversation with the student teacher, Ditz said he felt like he had to tread carefully as he explained his political views, but “she was very open to listening to me and wasn’t telling me I was a bad person for anything I said.”

But Ditz has not had that same reception from his peers. 

“It's [Kent State] fairly open minded,” Ditz said. “But, if you do want to talk about something conservatively, then you're more likely to get a backlash to that.”

Ditz said that this backlash usually comes in the form of jokes from peers his age. 

“I’ve had people kind of joke at me,” he said. “But with these people it’s hard to see where they were crossing a line or not. They would try and push, like I’ve been called a Hitler supporter which is by all means over the line.”

Ditz is a strong believer in freedom of speech and feels if the opinion isn’t hurtful then open discussions should be allowed to take place. As for how Kent State handles different political expressions, Ditz said the university does a good job at keeping the peace. 

“Like if they know a rally is coming up for something that's either left wing or right wing, there's kind of like an air about it like, ‘Hey, all right, here's this going on, but be aware we'll step in if you know you get violent or you get rowdy.’”

David Carey, deputy legal director of the ACLU of Ohio, argues discussions have little value if everyone agrees or is afraid to share their views on controversial subject matter. 

“As a general matter, if one student holds a viewpoint on any subject matter that offends another student, then the appropriate approach is to discuss that viewpoint and to refrain on both sides—on any side—from ad hominem attacks or personal attacks,” Carey said. 

However, Carey said that the responsibility of fostering a welcoming environment is on the university faculty and not on the students, who have every right to disagree with course material and classroom discussions. 

“As a general rule, faculty members should always keep in mind the need to not suppress student views, based merely on there being a good faith dissenting viewpoint,” he said. “And it's the responsibility of the individual faculty member to balance all of those interests.”

Shahverdian said that universities could make the transition easier for college students when they introduce these concepts during the first year of school. These concepts include freedom of speech and academic freedom, active listening and what it means to offer a constructive viewpoint. 

As for resources available to faculty and students, PEN America offers guidance on how to handle tense moments on campus. Shahverdian also suggests that universities enlist the expertise of their own professors to teach academic freedom, free speech and inclusion. 

“I would also emphasize that students change every four years,” she said. “This is not the kind of thing that can be a one-hour workshop and then forgotten about, but it needs to be baked in across the fabric of the university, consistently and proactively so that everyone feels they understand the policies and also how to be, like I said, a good college student and how to be an active, thoughtful participant in conversation and discourse across campus.”

While Ditz commends Kent State’s approach to mitigating student conflicts, he does think there is room for improvement for the school to communicate what resources are available to them if they are having issues within the classroom. 

“It just kind of falls onto the student to make sure that they're using those resources,” Ditz said. “So maybe better advertisement of, you know, how Kent State is willing to step up and actually help students because, honestly, sometimes things are available for us, but a lot of students just like don't know what's available to us.”

This collaboration is produced in association with Media in the Public Interest and funded in part by the George Gund Foundation.