Editor’s note: This is a republication of one of my personal works for the organization Asian Youth for Civic Engagement. I believe it is equally, if not more, important to read through today.
In February 2019, Student Life, an independent newspaper at Washington University, published an article with the title: “It’s OK that conservatives don’t feel welcome”. The article begins by mentioning another survey conducted at the school, which found conservative leaning students feeling unwelcome and excluded from discussion. The Student Life article then descends into the author directly stereotyping all conservative leaning individuals as holding morally abhorrent views, and then deems that open discussion is irrelevant as these views should never be pondered. After finishing this article, I asked myself the question: “Are we really at a time where people are perfectly ok with silencing millions of voices and opinions?” My conclusion? Yes, yes we are.
This article will focus upon 2 ideal areas for political discussion: College Campuses and Social Media Platforms. I will go over both, and discuss the potential chilling of speech and censorship in each region. My overall position is this: All speech, including hate speech, is protected, and thus should be allowed on colleges and social social media in so far as it does not directly incite violence (Criticizing Christians would be distinct from directly calling for physical harm against Christians). At the least, these platforms and colleges ought to directly establish clear and concise dilenations between what counts as hate speech, and apply it equally to both sides of the political spectrum. Outside of what is considered hate speech, I worry that campuses and social media platforms are restricting conservative speech and opinions that are not “hateful”, and that even if this is not empirically true, an alarming percentage of people believe this to be true. I contend that on certain campuses, there is definitive liberal censorship, however as a general principle, my position is that conservatives are censored at a greater percentage. Statistically in the status quo, a Cato study finds that over 71% of Americans in general feel as if political correctness has silenced overall discussion, with a heritage poll finding that restrictions on speech are popular for many left-leaning individuals.
The first part of this article will focus on conservative censorship of speech on college campuses. For many youth, college campuses should be a place where a diverse number of opinions and beliefs interact. These campuses should be a place of conversation and discussion that fosters independent thinking, acceptance, and progress. Colleges should never only foster and allow political views on one side of the spectrum. Unfortunately, a climate of discussion and acceptance will never work, however, when only one side of the political spectrum is represented, a problem that is inherent to a majority of the colleges and universities of today. However, to be fair, the college debate is less of a real issue on conservative censorship, although that does play a significant role, but also about the chilling of non-conformist opinions in general. I’ll talk first about conservative censorship, then move on to chilling of speech in general. On conservative censorship, in a 2017 Gallup/Knight Foundation Study, an overall 61% of Americans agreed that the political climate of their campus prevented some students from expressing their views, up from 54% in 2016. Furthermore, the majority of students favor policies that restrict certain speech that may be pertained as offensive. Interestingly, while the study also found that a large percentage of conservatives could speak up, 69%, it was still far lower than the similar rate for liberals, that being 92%. Another study by McLaughlin & Associates found that on college campuses, Republican students were more likely than Democratic students to be afraid to speak up, and over half of students are afraid to discuss their opinions. A study by Pew featured a significant ideological gap between Republicans and Democrats: 58% of Republicans believed that colleges and universities have a negative effect on society, while 72% of Democrats responded in support of these institutions. These studies provide a fairly consistent story: The majority of Americans on college campuses believe that the political climate restricts them from expressing their views, which coincides with similar statistics for overall lack of engagement. The various studies also found that conservatives were more likely than their liberal peers to fear speaking out.
The photo provided below is a study by the Heterodox Academy, which asked students about their ability to speak up about controversial issues, and their fear of the reaction it would cause. The study is ranked based upon the reluctance to speak.
Moving on from student opinions in censorship, The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), provides an overview to the actual status of free speech on college campuses, and provides ranking 3 tier ranking system for free speech restrictions. Only 9% of college institutions do not maintain policies that place restrictions on students’ free speech rights. 61% of institutions somewhat, prohibit constitutionally protected speech, and 28.5% of institutions maintain policies that substantially restrict freedom of speech. Among private Universities, 88% place restrictions on free speech rights. Based upon these statistics, there seems to be a widespread trend regarding restrictions of free speech. Regardless of how you view certain opinions, these restrictions chill speech in general. People of not just right leaning political views are afraid to speak up over their personal views, due to the culture of censorship that currently exists. This trend and phenomenon of chilled speech is alarming, and we may reach the point where no one chooses to share their views.
I’ll splinter off of the main argument and briefly discuss safe spaces on college campuses. I don’t think they achieve their goal, and in fact, lead to more long term harms. A safe space is defined as a space in an educational institution that does not tolerate violence, harassment, or hate speech. While these spaces may have good intentions, they not only harm educational institutions but fail to benefit students in the long term. When we regard language as fear mongering, we open ourselves up to the idea that words or ideas that are uncomfortable deserve to be removed. In 2014, South Carolina threatened to cut funding to universities with summer readings about LGBT individuals. The legislature justified their action by claiming that the institution had to be sensible to the varying beliefs of students. But they’re wrong: the entire purpose of a University is to challenge the beliefs of students, something that can never be comfortable. Implementing safe spaces only creates a barrier to dialogue, co-opting the fundamental role of an educational institution. Safe spaces are also unrealistic: they do not simulate how society really works. These safe spaces give teenagers unrealistic expectations for the real world, where there isn’t a University Expulsion there to prevent offensive language. By giving people the expectation that they will never be attacked, these safe spaces only worsen their reaction in the real world when they are unprepared to face these attacks.
To clarify my view on college campuses, here’s a quick summary.
-An alarming number of universities have significant restrictions against free speech
-Safe Spaces are illogical and fail to prepare students for the real world
-Conservatives disproportionately feel censored on campuses
This section of the article will discuss alleged censorship on social media platforms. With the emergence of social media as a platform for conversation, there often remains concerns and fears over the political neutrality of these platforms. A wide range of studies indicates that both Americans as a whole and Conservatives believe that tech companies censor conservative speech. In an analysis by the Pew Research Center, an estimated 72% of Americans believe that social media platforms censor political views that are considered objectionable by these companies, and alarming number considering the political divide of the country. In the same study, 43% of respondents believed that tech companies prioritize liberal views over conservative views, while only 11% felt the inverse. Among Republicans, 85% felt that social media sites intentionally censor political viewpoints, and 64% that tech companies have a liberal bias. In a similar study by New Media Research Center, 65% of self-identifying conservatives said that they believed companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube were censoring conservative ideas, while 66% felt that they did not trust big-tech corporations to treat users equally regardless of political views.
Outside of the public opinion, there are various examples of questionable practices. Recently, Project Veritas revealed that Twitter had been actively “shadow-banning” conservative profiles. Writer Richard Hanania found a 21-1 skew in twitter bans between Trump and Clinton supporters. Hanania explained that these results were highly irregular, requiring Trump supporters to break TOS five times as often to even have a 5% chance of reaching this skew. In June of 2018, Google was revealed to have labeled the Californian Republican Party’s ideology as Nazism. In early June of this year, leaked google eamils referred to Jewish political commentator Ben Shapiro as a “Nazi”. A pro-Trump vlog by Diamond and Silk and a campaign video by Aric Nesbitt featuring pro-life messages were deduced as “unsafe to the community”, seemingly hypocritical in the lack of bans for individuals calling for death threats and grotesque acts against Ajit Pai during the Net Nuetrality debate. Facebook has faced accusations of hypocrisy for it’s banning of right wing commentators like Alex Jones, Laura Loom, and Milo Yiannopoulos, while continuing to provide a platform for Antifa groups who have issued death threats against the president. Even under the pretense that all hate filled and vile speech and thought should be removed, a position that you may agree with and a position tech companies have taken, this brightline seems to be questionably enforced. Recall the previous examples I’ve given you, but also more. Kathy Griffin, a comedian, posed with a model of a bloodied, decapitated Trump head, and recently called for a public outing of the Covington High School students, yet maintains a presence on Twitter. Sarah Jeong, a recently hired writer for the New York Times, had tweeted over the years dozens of explicit and abhorrent comments about white individuals. Yet, when Candace Owens did the same by replacing the term “white people” for “Jews”, in a post which she explicitly called a parody of another person, she was banned from the platform. The real issue with the censoring of speech on social media platforms is that it is hard to quantify what exact “counts” as hateful and vile speech. I’ll touch more on this later, in a latter section. This censorship is troubling, because for many individuals, this should not really be an issue. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, passed in 1996 provides protection to social networks from suits for what third-party users say or do on those platforms. For many, including the author of the act, the act is interpreted as giving companies protections while regulating their content. But for many, the Act is interpreted as meaning that social media platforms ought to either maintain a neutral platform, or clarify that they have a political stance, something protected by the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.
To clarify my position on social media platforms, here’s a quick summary.
-If companies choose to maintain neutral status, they ought to establish and clarify consistent guidelines for what really counts as “hate speech”
-Companies and Platforms are allowed to possess their views, and if they do, should clarify them instead of relying on neutrality protection from Section 230
-Even if you don’t believe that conservative censorship is a real thing, I would still contend that the majority of conservatives feeling like they are censored is still a bad thing, and something that these corporations ought to clarify
The problem with censorship
This section of the article will not be as factually based as the other sections, but will still describe my views on the matter. As I mentioned in the preface, I condemn and oppose hate filled and ignorant attacks. I will stand up and condemn these things with you. However, I find issue with how campuses and platforms are attempting to increase inclusivity. There are a few reasons to why I believe that these campuses and platforms shouldn’t censor in general. First, I believe it to be counterintuitive. All views, as long as they do not call for violence against others, should be “allowed to be stated on these campuses and platforms”. By opening up the discussion floor, we stand a better chance at directly outing and exposing hateful views. Discussion offers a chance for these individuals with hateful views to change their views. Not only this, silencing hateful views only allows for individuals with these views to foster and maintain them, and on the other hand. A world in which both sides are able to listen to opposing viewpoints leads to real change through discussion, rather than artificial and ineffective silencing. Second, censorship just doesn’t work. Establishing safe spaces on campuses doesn’t prepare college students who are easily offended from the real world, nor does it do anything to what college students say in their dorm rooms in private, away from others. Imposing harsh restrictions on what is allowed on certain social media platforms just leads people with hateful views to converge on other, more secretive platforms. Finally, “hate speech” as a term is difficult to quantify. What counts as hate speech? If I say for example, that a man at peak strength is physically stronger than a woman, is that hate speech? If I believe that there are issues with a law that criminalizes discrimination based on sexual orientation, do I automatically qualify as a homophobe dispensing hate? The problem with a topic like this is that there is not concise and universalizable definition for what counts as hate. In any attempt to clean away “hate” speech, some genuine criticism that is falsely labeled will always be a casualty. This isn’t helped by the fact that everyone has a different opinion for what counts as hate speech.
I’ll conclude with, once again, a brief summary to what I’ve written about. The current political climate has an overwhelming favorability toward censorship. Censorship definitely affects both liberals and conservatives, but as a general principle, but I believe it has worse effects toward conservatives, reflected by the statistics showing how conservative individuals are afraid to share their opinions due to fear of being labeled as “hate speech”, something that has led to an overall chilling in free speech. This censorship is bad: It doesn’t work, doesn’t change minds, and is arbitrarily applied with no concise or universalizable definition. Certain speech that DIRECTLY calls for violence ought to be censored: it’s neither constitutionally protected nor contributive toward progress. But when society chooses to censor, it takes a dangerous position between protection and silencing.