December 3, 2023

According to a recent report by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), faculty members are self-censoring more often today than social scientists were during the McCarthy era of the 1940s and 1950s.Dr.  Sean StevensDr. Sean Stevens

At the end of the Second Red Scare in 1955, 9% of social scientists said they moderated their writing for fear of provoking controversy.

Currently, the survey—sponsored by FIRE and administered by Social Science Research Services—asked nearly 1,500 college faculty about their views on campus civil liberties and found that today’s faculty are more fearful.

A quarter of teachers say they are very or extremely likely to self-censor academic publications, and more than one in three do so during interviews or lectures. 72% of conservative, 56% of moderate and 40% of liberal teachers said they fear losing their job or reputation because of their speech. And 42% of non-tenured teachers said they self-censored, compared to 31% of tenured teachers.

A third of educators said they often feel unable to express their opinions because of how students, colleagues, or administration might react. And faculty are more likely to feel pressure to avoid exploring controversial topics from faculty colleagues than from administration.

“We finally see the extent to which teachers have lost their cool,” said FIRE researcher Dr. Nathan Honeycutt. “When professors across the political spectrum fear losing their jobs for exercising their rights, true academic inquiry and diversity of thought become nearly impossible.”

The report also found that up to 36% of teachers would support investigating other faculty over controversial language; 50% of faculty think that Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) statements are a legitimate requirement for university work; 57% of liberal faculty said improving political diversity is less important than promoting racial and gender diversity; 20% of teachers under 35 say they are somewhat accepting of students using violence to stop controversial speakers on campus; and 19% of female teachers said it was acceptable to limit potentially “hateful” speech, even if they did not have such hateful speech.

“Faculty members complain that they can’t speak freely, but they also turn on each other,” said Dr. Sean Stevens, director of research and analysis at FIRE. “They can’t have it both ways. If faculty members want to feel safe and free to speak, they need to stop supporting the censorship of others.”

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