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Survey: 23% of college students support violence to stop a speaker they disagree with

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In a worrying trend for free speech on college campuses, a growing number of students are expressing support for shouting down a campus speaker they disagree with, or even using violence to stop a speaker, a new survey finds.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonprofit group that supports free speech in institutions of higher education, published its 2021 College Free Speech Rankings on Tuesday. The rankings assess the free speech climate on various college and university campuses by surveying the students who go to school there. The survey gathered the opinions of more than 37,000 students at 159 of "America's largest and most prestigious campuses," FIRE said in a news release.

The report asks students about their ability to discuss topics like race, gender, and politics, as well as whether they feel held back from openly sharing their views because of peer pressure. Schools are then ranked based on how favorable their students say the environment is for free speech.

"Existing ranking systems don't look at a core aspect of higher education: the ability to think, discuss, and speak freely," said FIRE Executive Director Robert Shibley. "Our rankings guide prospective students and their parents toward schools that value free speech and open inquiry. They also help us hold schools accountable and demand they do better."

Compared to past surveys, this year more students expressed support for silencing speakers they don't agree with, even by violent means. The survey found that 66% of students supported shouting down a campus speaker they don't agree with, an increase of 4 percentage points from FIRE's 2020 survey. Additionally, 23% supported using violence to stop a speaker, an increase of 5 percentage points from last year.

The two colleges that expressed the strongest support for violence to silence a speaker were elite women's colleges, Wellesley College and Barnard College.

Claremont McKenna College topped the list as the school most friendly toward free speech rights, followed by the University of Chicago, University of New Hampshire, Emory University, and Florida State University.

The worst school for free speech was DePauw University, followed by Marquette University, Louisiana State University, Wake Forest University, and Boston College.

More than 80% of students surveyed said they self-censor their viewpoints on college campuses at least some of the time, with 21% saying they censor themselves often. Racial inequality, abortion, and gun control are among the most difficult controversial topics to discuss.

Students also reported greater intolerance for campus speakers with conservative positions.

Only one-third of students said their college administrations stand strongly in support of free speech on campus.

"The research is clear, and our experience working with these schools confirms it: Much of the campus climate for expression is determined by the administration," said FIRE senior research fellow Sean Stevens. "Staking out a leadership position on free speech and open debate resonates with students and has a real effect on a campus' climate for free expression."

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