By Eli Mckown-Dawson

In recent years, “cancel culture” and free speech have become increasingly contested topics of debate on college campuses. Multiple states, including Florida, have passed or considered measures to alter or monitor the tone of public discourse on college campuses. 

Universities and private polling firms have conducted numerous public opinion surveys of undergraduate students to assess beliefs about viewpoint diversity and self-expression on college campuses. The Heterodox Academy found that a majority of U.S. undergraduate students think that the political climate on their campus prevents some people from saying what they believe. The study also found that this number of students increased from 55% in 2019 to 64% in 2021.

Students’ political ideologies—whether they identify as liberal or conservative—are consistently correlated with these views. For instance, in a 2019 study, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that 68% of conservative students engaged in self-censorship at least once, while 24% of liberal students said the same. 

These data suggest that the average conservative student feels less comfortable expressing themselves than the average liberal student. However, not all students think about ideology in the same way. Political engagement on college campuses varies widely and likely affects engaged students differently than disengaged students. 

The DeVoe L. Center recently analyzed data from the 2019 Campus Expression Survey to assess whether and how students’ political ideology and ideological engagement affected their views of campus climate. In this analysis, conservative students were less likely to feel comfortable expressing themselves than liberal or moderate students. However, conservative students were also less likely to report being mistreated on campus. 

A relationship also exists between the importance of political ideology to students’ identities and their views of campus climate. Ideologically engaged students—both liberal and conservative—are more comfortable expressing themselves than their disengaged counterparts. Engaged students are also more likely to report experiencing mistreatment than less engaged students. The effect of ideological importance on expression comfort is larger than the effect of ideology itself. These effects counterbalance each other and provide a more nuanced picture of the relationship between ideology and views of campus climate. While conservatives, on average, feel less comfortable expressing themselves than other students, the data suggest that an ideologically engaged conservative would likely feel more comfortable doing so than a disengaged liberal. 

Accounting for this student’s ideological engagement is critical when assessing student views on campus climate, as two students with the same political ideology may have vastly different experiences based on the strength with which they hold those beliefs. Moving toward a more holistic assessment of students’ political ideologies will improve studies of self-expression on college campuses and provide a more accurate picture of who is and is not comfortable sharing their sincerely held views. 

McKown-Dawson’s full policy brief,  Political Expression on College Campuses: The Predictive Importance of Ideological Strent, can be found here

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Eli Mckown-Dawson is a research assistant in the DeVoe L. Moore Center in the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University and is double majoring in Political Science and Philosophy with a minor in Statistics. He is also an Undergraduate Research Fellow with the LeRoy Collins Institute, a Fellow with FSU’s Institute of Politics, and the Director of the Student Council for Undergraduate Research and Creativity.

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