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Staying Quiet

Staying Quiet: Censorship of College Republicans in Class and on Campus

SOC 416-01

Fall 2021

Dr. Peter Marina

Jason Schrader

Abstract: Recent events such as the attempted canceling of Dave Chapell, a famous comedian, have highlighted the issue of censorship across the country. Specifically, in many universities across the United States conservative students have made claims of being censored. This study aims to discover how this censorship is carried out, what the effects of the censorship are on the students, and possible solutions to prevent further censorship from occurring. This study focuses on 10 College Republicans who participated in informal interviews. Using analytic induction, it was concluded that both hard and soft forms of censorship occur at the university and that professors, classroom structure, and campus climate are at the center of censorship. This has had an impact on students’ perceptions of academic freedom and the college experience in general. Several solutions were also discovered through this study, and they could alleviate soft censorship through proper phraseology by professors.

Key Words: Censorship, Freedom of Speech, Soft Censorship, Class Discourse, Academic Freedom

Terms and Definitions

College Republicans (CR)-College Republicans is a club on campus that is made up of conservative students. The club typically meets once a week and occasionally engages in political activism on campus and in the community.

Soft Censorship– Censorship that is due to phraseology, group dynamics, inconvenience, or environment. This type of censorship is typically unintentional.

Censorship-Censorship is the suppression of speech, public communication, or other information. This is typically done intentionally.

Academic Freedom-A scholar’s (students and staff) freedom to express ideas without risk of official interference or professional disadvantage.

Introduction: Walking to Class

A young man walks into a cool room constructed from white cinder brick walls. He sits at the desk in the back of the room, the same place he had many times before, next to the only other two men in the class. Sitting in a place he does not want to be but is forced to attend, he is already filled with boredom and has made up his mind that he will not speak this period. Instead of causing conflict and increasing the risk of receiving poor marks for his quality work, he will stay quiet for the next ninety minutes. This space is brightly lit with white fluorescent lights and is filled with the murmur of a room consisting of about 95% women which begins to quiet as the professor starts the lecture. The man’s focus drifts in and out of the lecture about how his values are horrid, his views repulsive, and his friends evil, the desire to speak out and disagree with this new “critical” perspective swells in the young man, yet he remains quiet.

Even when the professor requests for comments and questions he still remains quiet. He is afraid to disagree with the professor because he feels he has been graded unfairly in the past on the basis of his disagreement. He is afraid to speak because the entire class will attack his viewpoints and treat him as an “other” outside of class and in future interactions. He is afraid to speak out because he may be retroactively canceled if what he says now is labeled as racist, sexist, or bigoted to some subgroup in the future. He thinks of all the ways he may be mistreated and the negative effects that speaking out against this perspective may have on his life. “Yes” he thinks, better to stay quiet. Soon after this train of thought is over, the lecture reaches a close and the young man exits class already resenting Wednesday, the next time this experience will be forced upon him.

This scene is not atypical for conservatives on college campuses across the United States. Despite its grim Orwellian tone, it highlights that some students feel that Universities no longer successfully fulfill their purpose, teaching people how to think effectively. Rather Universities have become an ideological monolith with certain views being forced out of the classroom and swept under the rug. Sometimes students are outright not allowed to speak and sometimes they are disincentivized from speaking because of multiple factors. Regardless, this censorship, or soft censorship, whether intentional or not, is having an effect on the students as well as the quality of discourse in the classroom and the climate on campus.

This research project is an attempt to explore if, and how College Republicans are censored on campus and in the classroom. The implications of this study could possibly be generalized to other medium sized midwestern universities as the University in which the participants were from is typical. This is an important research topic because the findings can have an impact on how class discussions are conducted in the classroom, academic freedom, freedom of speech, students rights, political polarization and climate as well as many other areas of academic life. This paper is intended for sociologists and political scientists interested in understanding the dynamics of free speech and censorship in college courses and on campus.

Literature Review

Theme One: Tribalism is easily caused by fear and enables censorship:

There is a long history of sociology suggesting that humans are tribal creatures that readily form groups to compete with other groups. Durkheim illuminated the way that groups engage in rituals including the collective punishment of deviance to enhance their cohesion and solidarity. Furthermore, cohesive and morally homogeneous groups are much more prone to “witch hunts”, especially when they experience a threat, real or perceived. Typically this threat comes in the form of a crime against the collective, or more common today, a perceived attack on a marginalized group (Haidt 2019). After a perceived offense has occurred, people go into tribal mode and group interest becomes paramount and people will go to extremes to keep group cohesion. This is demonstrated by Browning in “Ordinary Men” where ordinary German police officers went from patrolling the streets to mass murderers and agents of Hitlers Final Solution.

Additionally, both political parties and even corporations use fear to sell products and narratives about current events (Glassner 2004). As stated above, once people are in this tribal mindset, group interest becomes paramount and censorship can easily follow and be justified in the name of social cohesion. That is why people only really get censored when they deviate from the popular or generally accepted narrative, especially if a group can claim that said deviation caused some form of harm (Finklestein 2017).

Theme 2: How censorship is enacted in other countries

In other countries, specifically China, censorship has been found to work best when it inconveniences internet users instead of outright banning or hiding information. Simply inconveniencing users, diverts the attention of the citizens and shapes the spread of information. When Internet users notice blatant censorship, they are willing to compensate for better access. But subtler censorship, such as burying search results or introducing distracting information on the web, is more effective because users are less aware of it (Roberts 2018). This can easily be applied to a classroom setting where students may not speak out because of subtle consequences for doing so including but not limited to: perceived and real hits to their reputation, grades, in-group standing, class cohesion, etc. It can also be used to explain how some students may not speak out in classes where qualifying statements are made before a question is asked. For example, a professor may set out a belief system and then ask if anyone would like to play devil’s advocate, implying that the belief system set out is correct and or that everyone agrees or accepts the previously described stance. 

Theme Three: Viewing people as Fragile opens the door for censorship

            There is strong research to suggest that people are antifragile meaning that adversity and even danger are necessary for their development. Like the immune system, people must be exposed to challenges and stressors (within reason and in age appropriate ways), or they will fail to mature into strong and capable adults, able to engage productively with people and ideas that challenge their beliefs and moral convictions (Haidt 2019). While this may be how people actually are, they are not treated as such in universities and in the home. Specifically students and members of generation Z are treated as if they are fragile and in need of protection (Haidt 2019) (Taleb 2012). This enables teachers and administrators to act in a way similar to helicopter parents. Haidt defined this as safetyism or the cult of safety. This means that parents, teachers, administrators, and other figures of authority develop an obsession with eliminating real and imagined threats to the point that people become unwilling to make reasonable trade-offs demanded by practical and moral concerns. Safetysim, the culture of coddling and needlessly protecting young people, deprives them of the experiences their antifragile minds need, thereby making them more fragile, anxious, and prone to seeing themselves and victims(Haidt 219).

The literature cited above has helped develop the research questions in multiple ways. Firstly, the questions focused on the perceptions of the students and their experiences regarding outright censorship as an interplay between an ingroup and an outgroup. Their opinions on their professors and classmates could impact their likelihood to speak up. Secondly, students simply need to be inconvenienced or slightly disincentivized from speaking to remain silent. When this occurs, it is called soft censorship because it is not blatant, intentional, or outright suppression of speech. Therefore my questioning focused on things that make students not participate and feel unwelcome from sharing their conservative views in class. Third, the participants were asked questions regarding their perceptions of the universities role in facilitating or disrupting discourse within the framework of safetysim to determine if there was a clear bias in their methods.

GAP IN RESEARCH

The existing research does not focus on students’ experiences regarding censorship, nor does it focus on how students are censored and why they might not speak up in the face of censorship. Some limited research has been done on outright censorship of students but these mostly fall under the realm of court cases regarding freedom of speech. The research does not, however, focus on how students may be experiencing soft censorship and what the cause of that might be. My study will fill in those gaps and add to the existing knowledge about how censorship is carried out, on purpose and on accident and what might make students self censor. Additionally the inconvenience factor that is so influential in China inspired me to focus on soft censorship at universities. Therefore my interview questions heavily focused on that aspect of the censorship experience.

Role of the Researcher

For this project, I intend to demonstrate that students are silenced/censored on campus because I have experienced it and want to highlight this problem in universities. I have on numerous occasions received lower grades (that were later changed after jumping through multiple hoops) because of the views I advocated in various papers and assignments. The first time that this occurred, I was told that my paper which followed the typical writing style for political science was docked multiple letters because I “structured my paper incorrectly”. After reviewing the rubric I emailed my professor requesting they change my grade as I was not graded based on the criteria presented in the rubric. Two days later my grade was changed from a “D” to a strong “B”. Despite this, I did not report the incident because it was early in the semester and I feared this would continue throughout the year if I brought attention to it. Furthermore, that same professor felt so strongly about my political views and the judgments that she placed on them that upon hearing one of her other students was a close friend of mine she felt the need to instruct him to not associate with me in the future because I was a bad person and a poor influence.

Based on these personal experiences I wanted to look at the conservative group on campus to get their experiences as I am more politically aligned with their ideals. Despite this, I acknowledge that people on all sides of the political spectrum may be having similar experiences, albeit in different ways and circumstances. This, however, is outside of the scope of my current project but is an idea for future research. Additionally, I intend to draw attention to the need for more speech and discourse on campus surrounding controversial ideas not less. I also want to give the people who do feel that they have been silenced a voice and means to convey their experiences surrounding the suppression of their speech. I will also convey valuable information about conservatives and their perceptions about censorship and their reasons for not speaking up in classes when they disagree with the views that their professors present.

The way that this study is conducted is unique in many ways. Firstly, it is one of the few qualitative projects on censorship and freedom of speech in universities. This project focuses on conservative students and how they experience censorship. While there are multiple studies done regarding censorship in general, most do not focus on college students. Second, I am a member of the group I am studying and the participants may be more willing to be candid and open with their experiences. I also only interviewed members of the College Republicans who volunteered to be interviewed. Because of the self selected sample, the data may be skewed towards people who have had strong experiences and opinions regarding censorship on campus. This is another benefit to the study because that is the area of inquiry. Furthermore, I am conducting semi structured interviews which will allow me the flexibility to dive deeper into the participants experiences and to ask in depth probing questions. Also, because I myself have experienced censorship on campus, I will be better able to understand their experiences. Fourth, I am seeking to figure out why some students don’t speak out when they have things to contribute to class discussions and lectures when they are not overtly censored. This approach also differs from other research that has been done because I am using both the sociological and the political science perspectives and I am conservative where most sociologists are left leaning.

While there are no ethical issues resulting from my research project, I am, by nature of this project, addressing the ethical issue of censorship in the university. This project will highlight several reasons why students may not be speaking out in class when they have something to contribute. Through highlighting these issues and presenting solutions, the ethical issues of censorship on campuses may be addressed. 

 Additionally, the scope of my project focuses on conservatives, but I can address the issue of censorship for all people in universities, not just College Republicans. This group was selected as my population because I had easier access to this group as I am a member of the club. Therefore, I am biased because I am against censorship of any group’s constitutionally protected speech and I believe that the best way to counter others’ speech is with more speech and discourse not silencing those who have different opinions. Despite my potential bias, I can ensure that the trustworthiness of my findings stay intact because I have verified the themes by citing multiple people who are saying the same thing and by verifying the information in the stories that I find before including them as evidence. 

Methodology

Conducting semi structured informal interviews allowed me to dive deeply into the experiences of the participants and develop and highlight common themes that the participants shared. I have conducted 10 of them and they averaged 40 minutes in length. All of the interviewees were members of College Republicans (CRs) and were white males aged 19 to 22. My interview questions are designed to flush out how these experiences have affected the participants and what their perceptions are about censorship as well as how censorship is carried out in a modern university. Additionally, it is designed to show how being censored has changed their lives and views. Therefore it is important to conduct interviews to get ascribed meaning and stories about their experiences instead of numbers and scales. The interview topics were professors’ relations to censorship, things that make students want to stay quiet, and how campus and classroom culture contribute to censorship. The questions were further developed from themes in the first two interviews with a focus on developing these themes in subsequent ones. So far, there have not been any other studies in the scholarly literature of this kind so there is a gap in the methodological approach of past scholarship.

To recruit participants, I attended one of the College Republican meetings and, after giving a brief overview of the research project, asked for people to volunteer to participate. I then selected ten people from the list of 15 volunteers. The list of volunteers consisted entirely of white men. Underclassmen were excluded because they haven’t been at the university very long, or only experienced classes online. Therefore they haven’t had the chance to experience what I am attempting to research. My data was generated through interviews and themes were derived using analytic induction. For example, the first two interviewees both mentioned they perceived that they could be graded more harshly for voicing and holding conservative views. This then became a focus for subsequent interviews. After confirming that each of the ten participants all held that conviction in some form it became a solid theme for the paper. Basically, once commonalities were demonstrated in interviews, they became a focus in succeeding one where they were developed more fully. Then, after the interviews were complete, the transcripts were analyzed and the data was sorted into the themes that are elaborated on below. This technique has been proven to generate valid results in multiple previous studies including “Becoming a marijuana User” by Howard Becker and Balch’s “UFO Cults Develop a Seven-Step Role Theory of Conversion”.

Results

The results are organized by themes. These themes were developed as stated in the methods section above using analytic induction. All of the data and themes presented were verified using other research participants, collaborated through outside inquiry, or verified with evidence such as images. The first theme that emerged as the interviews were conducted were professors and their relation to censorship and soft censorship. The second theme is that social stigma acts as a powerful force for soft censorship, and the last theme was that the University in general has a relationship with participants’ perception of censorship and fairness on campus.

Theme 1-Professors and Censorship:

Professors have an interesting relationship with censorship as they hold all of the power in the classroom. From the moment the students enter the room they know the professor is in charge and that they are supposed to listen to and respect them. Even the design of the room solidifies this fact, with the professor in the front of the class with all the students lumped together waiting to learn. Professors are in control of the flow of the classroom and they can end discussion whenever they want. Cutting students off when they are in the middle of answering a question that the professor just posed effectively censors the student. This then has a further effect on class participation and discussion. When asked about a time they were censored in class one participant named Ryan said “I was making a right wing pitch for Trump… but I was making a pitch for him instead of just agreeing with the professor’s stance or letting it go because I wanted to talk about it and fully answer his question. But the professor interrupted me and said something along the lines of ‘yea some people think that way but not us.’ And I thought that was a really weird thing for him to do.”

This demonstrates the power that professors have to stop discussion whenever they want and to create one sided discussions where conservative viewpoints are absent. Ryan further elaborated that “a few people gave pro Biden stances but after I got interrupted nobody wanted to say anything because if they liked Trump they would just get shut down right away and if they agreed with Biden they didn’t need to speak up because they already won the class due to the professors actions.” This further highlights that in this case, the professor can censor a certain viewpoint on accident or on purpose.

Now, one could argue that the professor in this case was just attempting to move the class along, in which case it might have been appropriate to cut a student short but the topic was relevant, timely and of public importance with the class taking place right before the 2020 election. Additionally, the fact that the professor continued the discussion one sidedly after cutting Ryan off demonstrates that the professor was not just moving the class along. Many cases similar to Ryans are chalked up to professor ignorance but Ryan disagreed saying “he might have been worried that I would influence people to vote for Trump.” when asked why the professor cut him off. To Ryan, the professor did silence him intentionally because of his dissenting opinion of Joe Biden or his pro Trump stance. Ryan further stated that he perceived the professor was cutting him off because “If I was allowed to just present my side it would have made people upset because of how polarizing of a figure Trump was.” This sentiment ties in perfectly with what research has been done on the topic already in regards to safetyism. People (students) need to be protected from views and opinions that could possibly lead to some sort of psychological harm, therefore censorship is justified. The other Participants Calvin, Vinny, Chuck, and Tom all reported similar instances and feelings of being prevented from continuing their explanations and even starting their explanations. For example, a professor told Calvin “We don’t talk about that and we need to move on.” when he attempted to argue against quotas for women in public office because people should be represented based on political ideology not based on immutable characteristics. Calivn later explained that during the class period in which this incident occurred, the professor let the students go early so he felt she was not being genuine in her comments and that he was effectively censored and prevented from dissenting to the professors claim.

Aside from professors being able to outright censor students by cutting them off, not calling on them, or changing the topic when a contrarian opinion is stated, professors can also accidentally censor students. When censorship occurs on accident, it is typically a result of how a question is framed, group dynamics, or other unintentional factors. Because of its unintentional nature I refer to it as soft censorship. This type of censorship is the most common as most of the time professors are not attempting to prevent discussion nor are they maliciously censoring students because they are offering a dissenting opinion although as demonstrated above, that does happen.

One way that professors engage in soft censorship is through the framing of their questions. When asked about this, Vinny stated that questions like “What type of feminist are you?” exclude him from the discussion because his disagreement is not between the types of feminism but with feminism in general. “The feminist question was hard for me to answer because I am not one. I’m not able to answer the question and I can’t share my disagreement with the question because my point of contention is multiple levels removed from what the question is.” This sentiment also perfectly matches the existing research regarding censorship in China because Vinny was inconvenienced because his point of contention being multiple levels removed from what the actual question was asking so it was inconvenient for him to voice his dissenting opinion. Because of this inconvenience and the way the question was framed Vinny stated silent despite having strong opinions and ideas to share with the class.

Vinny also went on to further elaborate that qualifying statements and the order questions are presented also disincentivize him from speaking in class. “When professors add qualifying statements to questions like “Since we all agree (blank) does anyone want to play devil’s advocate”. This prevented Vinny from speaking because he felt that “My side was already labeled as wrong and I would be fighting an uphill battle to get my point across and it also made me feel unwelcome to speak because my view was represented as that of an outsider”. In this way the professors were engaging in soft censorship just simply though their way of phrasing the question.

The last way that professors can censor students is through the grading process. Every single participant that was interviewed said they felt that offering a conservative opinion to the professor could negatively impact their grade. While this was only a perception for some participants like Calvin, who said “Speaking up might impact my grade but I am confident that I could go to the department chair and get it changed to the grade I earned.” he still felt that his grade could be negatively impacted if he honestly voiced his opinion. In fact, Tom reported that “I received a “D” on one of my papers on the wage gap because I explained that it was due to choices that women make and not sexism. Then for my other papers that year I agreed with the professor’s stance and received good grades even though I didn’t present my own views in the paper”. This is a horrendous occurrence and while I was not able to verify this happening because I didn’t see his paper nor his grades, it is in alignment with what other participants have reported and my own experiences at the university. This shows that in extreme cases, at worst, students can be punished or graded with increased scrutiny because of their views and at best, that perception is still impacting how students speak in class. When asked for the main reasons for not speaking up in class Vinny stated that “It’ll impact my grade negatively and I will be socially isolated or excluded by my classmates”. This clearly shows the link between the perception that conservative students are graded with increased scrutiny for defending their values and views in papers and in class. It also demonstrates that this fear of being graded harshly can decrease a student’s participation in class discussion.

Despite all of these findings demonstrating what “bad” professors do to engage in soft censorship, the participants also revealed many of the things that “good” professors do that encourage them to speak up in class even when they disagree with the professor. When asked to contrast how professors engage in soft censorship with what they do that make him more likely to speak in class Mark had several things to say. “I tend to speak up more when the professor asks open-ended questions”. This is directly opposed to the leading and framed questions that participants reported discourage them from speaking. Additionally Mark stated “In the class that I participated the most in, the professor made me feel really at home. He would give constructive feedback on all of my papers even if he disagreed with me. After giving positive feedback he would challenge me further by playing devil’s advocate. Then in the classroom instead of being the one to play devil’s advocate he would have other students do it. That way the discussion kept going and other people would get involved. He never cut me off and would even elaborate on points I made despite him disagreeing with them… Because of these things I knew I could speak up and that my grades wouldn’t suffer because of my views”. Then when asked how discussion in that class compared to discussion in his other classes he stated that “they were worlds apart”. This is great news because it highlights a potential solution to the problem of soft censorship that will be elaborated on further in the discussion portion.

Overall, professors typically and accidentally engage in soft censorship where the way they conduct themselves impacts student participation and willingness to speak their minds. The perception that professors will grade conservative students with more scrutiny, even to the point of failure just because of their views is also a mediating factor. When this is combined with their authority in the classroom to change the topic or end discussion whenever they desire censorship can be a real problem because students are not able to voice their opinions and learn from productive discussions like university was intended. In essence they are robbed from the educational experience and excluded from the participatory learning process.

Theme 2-Classroom Structure and Campus Culture

The second theme that developed from the first interview and continued through the last was that students can experience soft censorship from their social environment. This can include things like class make up, how the class and campus climate will perceive one’s views. Additionally, students can engage in censorship while simultaneously exercising a legitimate form of their freedom of speech.

As mentioned in the first theme above, Vinny stated “The two main reasons I don’t speak in class when I disagree with the professor is because it will impact my grade, and I will be socially isolated or excluded by my classmates”. The second part of this statement highlights the participants’ perceptions that their views in general are unpopular on campus. Each of the participants claimed that left leaning views are more welcome on campus and that they perceived that the majority of college students and professors are left leaning. This is consistent with voting patterns where younger people typically vote democrat while older people tend to lean more republican.

The fact is that when the College Republicans are in classes where they perceive they are a minority of one, they are much less likely to speak up. When asked about this, Chuck stated “In one of my Women Gender Studies classes, I was pretty sure that I was the only straight guy in the class and I didnt want to say anything that would be viewed as radical. So I never really participated in that class”. Chuck further elaborated on how having just one person that he knows agrees with him will make him more likely to participate in class discussions. “I sat by a guy who I found out was a republican before class. In that class I was more likely to share my views. I don’t know if we had a majority in the class but I had at least one person who agreed with me. I knew that I wasn’t completely alone and was much more likely to share my views because I would at least get a few nods in agreement when I spoke”. This clearly demonstrates that the perceived ideological makeup of the class impacts how likely the interviewees were to participate in group discussions. When there is a perception that one will be alone in their ideology they are much less likely to speak their mind than if they are with others who agree with them.

Secondly, students can experience outright censorship at the hands of other students. This incident is one that every participant had in common because they were all involved in “chalking” because they were a member of the club. After some of the meetings, members of College Republicans will go around campus and write their views down on the sidewalk with chalk. This is always carefully done so that it remains consistent with campus guidelines for chalking. For example, students are not allowed to chalk under areas where it will not rain, nor on the ramp leading to the dining hall. Upon one occasion, after chalking about removing the campus mask mandate it was discovered that other students were filling up buckets of water from their dorm rooms and going around and erasing the messages that had just been written(Pictured below).

The statements that were written down ranged from “Unmask The Rec” to things like “Masks Make Me Sad”. None of the messages were malicious, hurtful, or obscene, nor did they target or threaten any individual or group. One of the members of the club happened to witness this and alerted the Eboard of what was happening, which is how the pictures were taken.

When asked about this experience the participants all said that their views were either solidified or shifted even further right. Chuck even expresses a desire to do something similar to a left leaning group on campus saying “I wish we could erase their messages too. We cant even do that though because we would get in trouble for it just because the university will protect them”. He later clarified what groups he was talking about saying “The college dems, or any of the groups that are in the COVE/Pride center”. This sentiment of unequal treatment by the university was also stated by numerous interviewees including Vinny, Chuck, Mark, Ryan, Calvin and others. Clavin further clarified this sentiment by saying “It seems that whenever we report censorship to the university the response is that it is their free speech to erase our chalk and the University takes a hands off approach but when a left leaning group on campus experiences some injustice like censorship the whole campus gets an email from the Chancellor condoning the activities”. This feeling of mistreatment or unequal treatment from the university was consistent across each participant as well.

The participants also stated that the club chalks less frequently because as Tom stated “it will just get erased so why do it”. This event clearly had an impact on the participants and how they perceive the university and its free speech policy. This also has a direct effect on the public discourse on campus as chalking is one of the main ways for students to express themselves and get messages across to other students on campus. When that is taken away or hindered it does not create the “marketplace of ideas” that college has been famed for.

 These statements clearly demonstrate that College Republicans do get censored on campus, even if the censorship is a result of other students’ free speech. It also demonstrates that the university has an issue with the idea of free speech on campus as many students perceive that the university treats conservatives differently than students who hold other political ideologies. They also highlight how social stigma and the fear of exclusion can disincentivize students enough from participating in group discussion in class.

Theme 3-Academic Freedom

As stated above there is a perception that students and clubs are treated differently by the Universities administration depending on their political leanings. In addition to these feelings, the participants also had other complaints about unequal treatment from the university. Mainly, the perception that certain topics are not allowed to be contested or discussed in a classroom setting at all unless they were approached from a certain viewpoint.

First, each interviewee agreed that some topics could not be discussed at all in class and that if an attempt was made to create a discussion the professor would have to stop or change the topic because even though they are relevant to political discourse and current events. This list of off limit topics include, challenging Black Lives Matter, dissenting opinions of any group included under the branch of LGBT+, abortion, and race relations.

When asked about off limit topics Ryan stated “I think that any issue regarding the LGBT group would immediately be shut down by professors. I think that would be considered “hateful” right away and the professor wouldn’t allow it regardless of whether they wanted the discussion or not. They wouldn’t allow it to be engaged in because there could be just one person in that class who really supports the LGBT and would report it to the school. Then the school, being really against that kind of talk, the prof and student would get punished. So anything to do with LGBTQ is completely off limits to debate in classes”. Then when asked what would happen if he attempted to voice his view if the opportunity did arise Ryan said “he prof would cut me off but if I persisted the prof would really try to get me to stop. It depends on who the prof is and how forceful they would be. They would probably move on to the next topic. I don’t know if there would be any direct punishment right away but I definitely wouldn’t be allowed to speak on the topic”. This clearly demonstrates that relevant and charged political topics are perceived as off limits for students to discuss, even in political science classes. The perceived one sided nature of this censorship was highlighted in Toms response to the same question. He stated that “It depends on what side you are advocating for. If you are advocating in favor of protected groups like LGBT+ or BLM, then you will be able to have a conversation about it but you could not have a conversation where you disagree with any of those positions”. This highlights that conservative viewpoints are perceived to be less acceptable and even at times, outright hidden and prevented from entering the public conversation on complex and relevant issues in the classroom and at the university in general.

Discussion 

This study was limited in many ways. FIrstly it only focused on how College Republicans experienced censorship at one specific university. It did not focus on how other political groups and organizations experience censorship and soft censorship. Additionally the study did not focus on how immutable characteristics like race, gender, and sexual identity can impact the experiences of censorship. Studying how College Democrats experience censorship alongside how College Republicans experience it would be a great future study to compare how the two groups experience censorship. Additionally, it may be beneficial to ask each group how the other may be censored on campus to gauge their perceptions of censorship for students on the other side of the political spectrum. At the conclusion of the study there were more themes that were not included in this paper because they were not fully developed. Conducting additional interviews will allow these other themes to be further studied and expounded upon. Lastly, this study was limited in that all of the participants were white males. There were no females who volunteered to be interviewed but getting the perspective of  College Republican females would also be an interesting topic for future research.

While these findings are consistent with previous research on other topics, none of these aspects have been researched themselves. There is no existing qualitative research examining soft censorship, grade changes and participation, how questions are framed in relation to participation, nor on outright censorship as a result of other students’ free speech. All of these areas require future research to gain a more complete understanding of censorship in the classroom and on campus.

The findings of the study, soft censorship, the censorship that occurs by accident, as a result of how questions are phrased, qualifying statements, and grade changes creating fears are consistent with the existing literature. These things create enough inconvenience for the students to keep quiet, effectively censoring them. This is similar to the inconvenience that Roberts describes when discussing how China’s “Great Firewall” censors individuals in China (Roberts 2018). The findings regarding the perceived political make-up of the class are also consistent with research done on tribalism and group mentality by people such as Durkheim (Haidt 2019) (Glassner 2004).

After conducting this research project and having many of the professors that were mentioned in the interviews myself, I feel it is important to clarify a few things. The professors that engage in soft censorship are not intentionally being malicious, nor are they actively trying to suppress conservative viewpoints. Soft censorship is not the same as typical censorship. In fact, many of the cases where participants feel they were cut off or outright censored by professors could just be misunderstandings. Soft censorship says nothing about the integrity of the professors who engage in it because it is not intentional. Despite this, soft censorship has a similar effect on the quality of discourse and the functionality of the University as the “marketplace of ideas” where everyone has their viewpoints challenged as outright censorship. The quality of discussion is degraded, and students are robbed of exposure to new challenges that would have deepened their understanding about other arguments as well as their own.

Furthermore, the types of views that are found to be censored are typically ones that are not mainstream. This is consistent with research done by Dr. Finkelstein where he states that the people who tend to get censored are the ones who deviate from commonly accepted views (Finkelstein 2021). Students also perceive that dissenting opinions on LGBT and race relations are off limits. The University has a real problem with this perception because it is preventing students from engaging in classes and having discourse on current events that are relevant to the political climate. If students can’t talk about these issues on campus how can they be expected to be able to handle speaking about them outside of school? What if the student is looking to enter a career in politics or public policy? Whether students are actually allowed to talk about these topics or not, the university should make a serious attempt to correct the perceptions that they are off limits by demonstrating to students that the university is still “the marketplace of ideas”’ and the place to go to learn about any and all things. If they do not then a vital aspect of University has been lost.

The good news is that this study can also shed some light on how this and other Universities could go about fixing this perception as well as the problem of self censorship. As demonstrated in theme one, there are things that professors can do to limit the amount of soft censorship in their classes. Asking open ended questions, providing positive feedback with further challenges to students’ views, and avoiding leading statements, professors can help encourage conservative students to speak honestly and present their real opinions. Doing this consistently and making an effort to disavow censorship, even as a result of free speech, the university will send a clear message that free speech and academic freedom are alive and well. This will create a more vibrant public discourse around controversial and relevant political topics such as race relations and LGBT issues. The university could ensure professors are mindful of this by sending emails reminding them of these things once or twice a semester. Additionally, including dissenting positions in discussions will also help students avoid the pitfalls of groupthink in decision making and will better hone their skills in debate, conversation, and discourse. It will also allow students to deepen their understanding of others opinions and perspectives while challenging their own beliefs on a new level.

In conclusion, when professors and administrators conduct themselves in this manner, progress can be made in healing the perception that students’ grades are affected because of their political leanings. Giving constructive feedback and clearly explaining what students did wrong to deserve a poor grade in a clear and concise manner will demonstrate to students that their grade is a reflection of their work and not their political leanings. Additionally students should be made aware of policies regarding getting grades changed if they feel they are graded unfairly. This will provide the institution more legitimacy and will also allow students for an avenue to right perceived wrongs. It also gives professors a second chance to clarify what the student did to receive the grade they got and to correct misperceptions that may arise about them being graded harshly. This will go a long way in correcting students’ perceptions of inequity, censorship, and bias in university.

References

Browning, Christopher. 1994. Ordinary Men. London: Penguin Books.

Corlett, Angelo. 2018. “Offensiphobia.” The Journal of Ethics 22:113-146.

Effron, Daniel, and Paul Conway. 2015. “When Virtue Leads to Villainy: Advances in Research on Moral Self-licensing.” Current Opinion in Psychology 6(1):32-35.

Finkelstein, Norman. THIS IS REVOLUTION podcast. 2021. “America’s Most Cancelled, with Norman G. Finkelstein.” Posted April 24. Video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6XjhT5eR9as.

Glassner, Barry. 2004. “Narrative Techniques of Fear Mongering.” Social Research: An International Quarterly 71(4):819-826

Haidt, Jonathan. 2012. The Righteous Mind: Why good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Pantheon Books.

Layman, Geoffrey, Thomas Carsey, and Juliana Horowitz. 2006. “Party Polarization in American Politics: Characteristics, Causes, and Consequences.” Annual Review of Political Science 9(2):83-110.

Roberts, Margaret. 2018 Censored. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Simon, Joel. 2014. The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media Freedom. New York: Columbia University Press.

Strossen, Nadine. 2018. Hate: Why We Should Resist It with Free Speech, Not Censorship. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Taleb, Nassim. 2012. Antifragile. New York: Random House Publishing.

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