Submitted by Zaw Lin Htet, on behalf of Social Entrepreneurship and Economic Development (SEED)
Free speech is one of the core values of a democratic society. Across history (even in many countries today), the freedom of speech threatens and dismantles existing totalitarian regimes as it enables ideas of justice and equality to spread and helps abolish unfair institutions. Recently across college campuses, student groups clashed violently over the issue of free speech and the appearance of controversial guest speakers. Student groups would protest and counter-protest by sitting-in or interruption. One side argues that guest speakers who promote racist, prejudiced and segregationist ideas should be banned because they instigate violence and harm towards minority groups. They argue that allowing hateful speech normalizes microaggressions and discrimination. On the other hand, free speech defenders believe that we should not ban ideas even if they are dangerous or contrary to one’s own belief because freedom of speech is a right. The free speech debate is a very complicated topic, which many argue with very different reasonings. However, to generate a general overview of SUA students’ viewpoints on the debate, the new club Social Entrepreneurship and Economic Development (SEED) distributed a survey questionnaire and received responses from about an eighth of the student body.
Firstly, many students felt that the debate on free speech is important: 47 percent of the students regarded the issue as ‘very important’, 40 percent responded ‘somewhat important’ while 7 percent said neutral and the rest responded, ‘not important.’ Since universities are places of speech and debate, it is not surprising that SUA students have a keen interest in this public issue. While we did not include other identities of the respondent in the survey such as race, gender, GPA or class year, we included political identity. The results were consistent with the 2017 Student Engagement Survey, with 66 percent identifying as liberal, 26 percent as moderate and 8 percent as conservative. Because respondents who identify as conservatives are minimal, it is statistically insignificant to analyze whether political identity influences other variables. Sixty-six percent also answered that they could identify hate speech, while the rest responded that they could not.
When students are asked about their opinions on whether SUA should regard offensive speech as discriminatory harassment and should consecutively punish the speaker, 9.09 percent strongly agree, 38.18 percent somewhat agree while 38.18 percent strongly disagree and 25.45 percent somewhat disagree. It appears that the student body is evenly split between those who want to punish offensive speech and those who do not. About 49 percent believe that SUA should punish offensive speech while 51 percent believe SUA should not.
Picture 1. Consider the statement below. To what extent do you agree/disagree with it? ” Soka University of America should consider speech that offends another person as constituting discriminatory harassment and subject to disciplinary action.”
Following that question, we asked a more direct one: “Do you think people should be allowed to express their opinions even if they are offensive and harmful?” and added ‘neutral’ as an option in the response. We began to see more respondents in favor of freedom of speech than banning hateful speech. Almost 13 percent strongly agree that offensive and harmful speech should be allowed, 44.44 percent somewhat agree while only 1.85 percent strongly disagree and 25.93 percent somewhat disagree. Nearly 15 percent opted for the neutral option.
Picture 2. Do you think people should be allowed to express their opinions even if they are offensive and harmful?
Next, the survey moves onto individual on-campus experiences. We asked whether if students think SUA is a comfortable place to express one’s opinion honestly. Thirty-eight percent of students think that you can express your opinions honestly at SUA while a larger portion (47.27 percent) do not think so.
Picture 3. SUA is a place where you can express your opinions honestly and comfortably.
Although many on campus felt restrained from speaking their opinions, not many of them have been shut down by their peers or professors for their speech. Further investigation is required to understand why students felt restrained from expressing their opinions if no one has ever denounced their opinions.
Picture 4. Have you ever been shut down or silenced by a fellow student or a faculty member for giving a speech which they consider harmful and offensive?
When asked how SUA students would respond to offensive, harmful speech and speech they disagree with, an overwhelming majority said they would resort to dialogue rather than reporting to authority, protesting or physical action.
Picture 5. How would you respond to speech you disagree with?
Picture 6. How would you respond to speech you consider offensive and harmful?
In conclusion, a small majority of SUA students believe that offensive and harmful should be allowed while a good minority advocates disciplinary action and censorship for hate speech. As said in the introduction the free speech debate is complicated. If hate speech were to be censored, it will be a difficult task to define and regulate it. On both sides, people should be able to participate in public issues without fear or harm. At SEED, we believe that this debate is worth-having, and thus, we try to include a variety of perspectives. We hope to continue studying this debate from another dimension and to study other issues on campus. Stay tuned!