With the beginning of the college academic year, those of us teaching this fall are drafting various course syllabi — seeing what might be worth revisiting, such as new readings that might be added.
But all too often, the upfront syllabus boilerplate sections are overlooked since they are cut and pasted from previous versions of the same course or similar ones. Unfortunately, a section dealing with free expression in the classroom is missing in many.
This is a more focused area than campus speech, which continues to attract national headlines as outside speakers from the right and left are disinvited or shouted down. The issue here is less about censorship — which may be referenced in a syllabus by linking to an established campuswide free-expression policy or the University of Chicago Principles adopted by dozens of universities — and more about self-censorship. The latter concern often is more difficult to identify since it involves an unwillingness to speak freely in light of actual or perceived consequences for doing so. Data and personal experience suggest this needs to be addressed head-on.
For example, the Heterodox Academy’s 2023 Campus Expression Survey asked more than 1,500 full-time college students from universities across the country about how reluctant they are to share their views on various topics in class and what variables are associated with students’ reluctance. Just over 58 percent of the respondents said they were reluctant to share their views on politics, race, sexual orientation, gender or religion in the classroom.
I concur with the observation of Nicole Barbaro, the organization’s director of communications and marketing. “This is a real problem that should concern all educators, especially across the social sciences, biological sciences and humanities where these topics are most likely to be central to academic research and discussions. If students are not comfortable talking about these topics in class — a space intended for exploring ideas, discussing research and critically thinking about problems — then our universities are, in part, failing at their intended purpose.”
Classroom self-censorship is a two-sided phenomenon. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) surveyed almost 1,500 college faculty members nationwide to dig deeper into the issue. Its data show that a third of faculty (34 percent) reported they self-censor on campus “fairly” or “very” often. According to FIRE, faculty members are more likely to self-censor today than during the Joseph McCarthy era of the 1950s.
Based on its survey, this observation again rings true to me and probably to countless other faculty members. “It is hard to comprehend the fact that the very group of people charged to showcase how viewpoint diversity and healthy debate functions are themselves limiting their expression — at rates higher than the students they are supposed to teach.”
Ten years ago, I served as the inaugural professor of communication in residence at Northwestern University in Qatar. Unlike the United States, there was no First Amendment there to reference. My students were brought up in a culture where free speech was not encouraged and, in fact, could be punished severely as a matter of law.
By discussing self-censorship in class with my students at the outset, I was gratified how an explicit conversation at the beginning of the semester — supported and reinforced with each class session — produced a high level of viewpoint diversity and dissenting voices. I saw how the students felt free to engage with me in covering the course material, not just learning about free expression as an ideal but also experiencing it in practice.
Given the wave of classroom self-censorship that has hit U.S. college classrooms in the intervening years, I intend not just to discuss this when I provide a course overview but also explicitly remove classroom self-censorship guardrails that may exist, even if they are not acknowledged. The course syllabus is the ideal place to convey this, especially since it will be referenced by the students continuously throughout the semester.