A new survey finds that most undergrads favor free speech, even if the loudest students—and Yale administrators—don’t.
At last, there’s hopeful news on intellectual liberty from a college campus. A new survey of students at Yale finds that a large majority favor free speech. Perhaps the kids can now also persuade the school’s administration of the virtues of academic freedom.
Your humble correspondent is an alumnus of the school and serves on the board of the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program at Yale, which commissioned the survey of 872 Yale undergraduates. Conducted from April 17th to the 23rd by the polling firm McLaughlin & Associates, the survey found that 72% of respondents oppose the idea of Yale “having speech codes to regulate speech for students and faculty,” while 16% favor the idea. Of course depending on one’s point of view, it can seem reassuring that free speech still wins in a landslide or disturbing that 16% of students actually want to surrender their right to express themselves. This column prefers to view the glass as 72% full.
Which of the following statements comes closer to your own personal opinion? Yale should always do its best to promote intellectual diversity and free speech by allowing a wide range of people with differing views and opinions to speak on campus
Yale should forbid people from speaking on campus who have controversial views and opinions on issues like politics, race, religion or gender
On this question, 84% opted for intellectual diversity and just 5% favored muzzling people with controversial views.
These findings are particularly encouraging because in 2015 Yale became infamous for some hypersensitive students who were unable to tolerate Halloween costumes. The costume kerfuffle and the recent removal of the name of alumnus John C. Calhoun from a residential college at Yale were among the campus events that inspired a recent episode of “The Simpsons.” In the fictional Fox sit-com, a Yale administrator informs a wealthy alumnus that “our students are highly entitled wusses.” Another Yale official then urges the alum to fund a chair in the “non-narrative cinema of self-identified pansexuals.”
But the new poll suggests that the intolerant few who publicly berated Yale faculty over Halloween costumes—and even forced the resignation of those who wouldn’t embrace their extremism—do not speak for most Yale undergrads. Here’s hoping that those who cherish free speech on campus will start exercising this precious right. The majority of students could stand as a bulwark of freedom not just against the loud and intolerant few among their classmates, but also against administrators who have lately been seeking to maintain a gag rule on alumni candidates for Yale’s board of trustees.
Certainly it can sometimes require courage to speak up. In the survey, 70% of Yalies said they have “often” experienced political bias in the classroom and 88% said that most of their professors are liberal, while just 1% said most of their professors are conservative.
But regardless of their personal views, Yale students seem to think the campus renaming trend has gone just about far enough. While most respondents approved of the renaming of Calhoun College, they also seem to understand and appreciate the strength of their university’s brand name. A full 79% of survey respondents were aware that Elihu Yale was a slave trader, but 84% oppose taking his name off their school.
The polling firm does offer a caveat on these results, noting that because “the sample is based on those who initially self-selected for participation rather than a probability sample, no estimates of sampling error can be calculated.” However, McLaughlin & Associates adds that “a confidence interval of 95% was calculated in order to produce an error estimate of +/- 3.3% for the 872 respondents.”
Perhaps the university should first try to learn the views of the majority the next time it is considering the demands of a loud few. A good first step toward a more informed campus debate is to allow alumni trustee candidates to exercise the free speech rights that are obviously valued by both current and former students.