In the world of on-campus activities, there aren’t many things that cause a news firestorm. For an organization like the Buckley Institute that focuses on intellectual diversity at Yale, news trucks only arrive when a speaker has been protested or shouted down. What brought journalists to Yale in November 2022 was the decision by federal appellate Judges James Ho of the 5th Circuit Court and Elizabeth Branch of the 11th Circuit Court to boycott future Yale Law students for prestigious clerk positions until Yale did something to address the intolerance on campus.

Earlier that March, over 100 students had protested and shouted down a panel on free speech that featured both a noted conservative and a prominent liberal. Police were called. But even after some of the disrupters left the room, they continued to shout and bang on the classroom walls, making it difficult for the event to proceed. 

The previous fall, Yale Law administrators had pressured a Native American student to apologize for a party invitation, even warning it could hurt his career prospects. And who could forget how two Yale faculty ended up resigning as heads of a residential college after students demanded they lose their jobs simply for suggesting that college students could maturely handle a Halloween costume they found offensive?

At the invitation of the Buckley Institute, Ho and Branch gave an overflow crowd a chance to hear why a boycott was necessary and how they hoped Yale would improve quickly. But what really stood out was a comment from one Yale undergraduate who questioned whether it was really fair for life-tenured judges with total job security to ask students to put their futures on the line to stand up for free speech. “Sometimes,” she said, “it’s better for me to just sit back, bite my tongue, and then in four years, I’ll be able to say whatever I want.”

Conservatives in college are self-censoring

That conservative students at one of the world’s preeminent universities self-censor during classroom discussion is, sadly, not a surprise. Seventy years ago, William F. Buckley Jr., for whom the Buckley Institute is named, wrote “God and Man at Yale” about his own experience with the campus orthodoxy. In 2011, I founded the Buckley Institute to address the still rampant monoculture at Yale. 

Though conservatives are more worried about being canceled, progressive students are also concerned. 

As an undergraduate, I observed a lack of conservative or even heterodox viewpoints on campus. Yale celebrated diversity — but not diversity of thought. In the basement of one of Yale’s residential colleges, a few friends and I launched what would become the Buckley Institute as a simple speaker series to bring intellectual diversity to campus.  

One of our signature efforts, our annual college survey, shows that this problem is not unique to Yale. In 2022, 63% of college students surveyed nationwide said they often feel intimidated in sharing opinions different than those of their classmates; 58% because of their professors. Both records since we began asking this question in 2015, those two numbers represent a 13% and 8% increase from the previous years, respectively. 

Tasha Dambacher, a sophomore majoring in history, feels this acutely. After all, she was the one who questioned Ho and Branch about the practicality of speaking up. She worries that sharing conservative views could negatively impact her grade in a class, graduate school applications or even future job prospects. 

The pressure to self-censor can creep up in unexpected places. Aron Ravin, a junior, recalled a discussion seminar on “The Iliad” where the professor compared the violence in Homer’s epic poem to the killing of George Floyd and school shootings. Student groups had been calling for defunding the Yale Police Department, which Ravin called “one of the few things that made students on campus feel safe in New Haven.” Sick of the oppressive campus orthodoxy, he chose to speak up in defense of the police and pointed out that Homer’s work, published almost 3,000 years ago, had nothing to do with contemporary politics. Ravin hoped that doing so would embolden similarly-minded classmates who were afraid to share their perspectives.

Though conservatives are more worried about being canceled, progressive students are also concerned. Liberals (64%) were only 2% less likely than conservative students (66%) to report being intimidated from sharing an opinion in class because of their fellow students. Neither age, nor race, nor public or private university enrollment brought the share of those intimidated by classmates below 53%.

Does religion matter in college?

Yale’s religious students too feel the pressure. Though there isn’t generally a feeling of hostility toward religious individuals, Ryan Gapski, the Buckley Institute’s current student president, commented that “there’s a sense among students that religious perspectives shouldn’t be lent as much credence as secular ones.” Another religious Yale undergraduate, Marcos Barrios, expressed a similar sentiment and commented that, as a religious person, “there is a certain level of caution you have before you speak on hot button issues.” 

“Yale is welcoming to religious students,” Barrios continued. “They’re just less welcoming when a person’s religion means they have different views on the values the university professes.”

Beyond expressing their views in the classroom, religious students at Yale also have trouble dealing with the administration regarding religious housing needs. The growing frustration even led to a recent rally. Gapski agreed that the administration was “definitely a part of the problem here.” Religious students had “significant challenges in securing religious accommodations for housing” as many dormitories have mixed-gender floors and communal bathrooms. The university did ultimately agree to offer a single-gender housing option after weeks of protest.

Some students sense that the Yale administration is more willing to accommodate the religious needs of its student body when those needs don’t conflict with progressive orthodoxy. “I believe it’s much harder,” Barrios said, “when the university doesn’t agree with the student’s reasons.”

Student protests are becoming the norm

If it seems like shout-downs are increasingly normal on college campuses these days, it’s probably because college students are more supportive of them than before. 

Our 2022 survey found 44% of college students, the highest percentage on record, believe it is acceptable to shout down or disrupt speakers on campus. A record 41% believe it is justifiable to use violence to stop hate speech. 

Alarmingly, students who are afraid to speak up support the very things that make them timid in the first place. With 63% of students afraid of their classmates and 44% supporting shout-downs, there is a cross section of students who fear social cancellation but still support censorship anyway. Among students, 43% believe political opinions they “find offensive” should be reported to administrators. And nearly two-thirds believe new university faculty and any new employees at any company should be compelled to sign a diversity, equity and inclusion statement.  

The price of free speech in college

Indeed, many current college students have turned away entirely from the principles that make America so uniquely welcoming to free speech in the first place. For the first time in the eight-year history of the survey, a plurality of students don’t believe that hate speech is protected by the First Amendment. A slim plurality of college students (33% to 31%) would prefer to live under a socialist system than a capitalist one. As Milton Friedman famously argued in “Capitalism and Freedom,” a free marketplace of ideas and a free marketplace of goods go hand in hand. 

“It’s better for me to just sit back, bite my tongue, and then in four years, I’ll be able to say whatever I want.” 

There can be social costs to speaking up, no doubt. Ravin decided early on to speak out and share his conservative perspectives: in the classroom, in the Yale Daily News and in various conservative outlets. 

He related that one fellow student began harassing him over an op-ed he wrote and demanded Ravin issue an apology. The student then said Ravin would “bear his grief” unless Ravin donated to a fundraiser for “black, transgender, homeless youth.”

Dambacher told Judges Ho and Branch that she’s “seen conservative friends sniggered at” as they walk across campus. “Yale is a small community,” she explained later. “Once one person says something about you, everyone knows, so it can sometimes be safer to keep a low-profile.”

Is Yale trying to improve free speech on campus?

The question that came to me over a decade ago was what to do about the lack of intellectual diversity on campus. During my time as an undergraduate, this was clearly an issue with regard to the faculty. Ten years later, Yale hasn’t changed much. A 2017 survey by the Yale Daily News found that 75% of Yale faculty identified as liberal versus 8% who identified as conservative. In 2020, the Yale Daily News reported that less than 3% of faculty political donations went to Republicans. 

The administration isn’t much help either. Ostensibly, Yale supports free speech and expression on campus. Yale President Peter Salovey focused his second freshman address in August 2014 on “free speech at Yale” and stressed in his most recent freshman address that “faculty and students — must be open to engaging with diverse ideas, whether conventional or unconventional, of the left or of the right.” The Woodward Report — which calls for “the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable and challenge the unchallengeable” — remains the university’s official free speech policy. 

Yet, for all Salovey’s words, Yale administrators seem unwilling to enforce the university’s own policies or take substantive steps to improve free speech on campus. No students were punished after the free speech panel was disrupted last March. And to add insult to injury, Yale gave graduation awards to two students who took leading roles in bullying a Yale professor during the Halloween costume controversy. Dambacher, the sophomore, commented that Yale administrators are a “part of the problem. They are often willing to humor attempts from other students attempting to censor speech, and will not affirm the importance of intellectual diversity or free speech.”

Indeed, an overweening bureaucracy is often the source of the free speech problems. The Halloween costume debacle began with an email from a paternalistic administrator. And it was a diversity director and an associate dean who warned the Native American law student of consequences over a party invite. 

To be fair to Yale and the many university and college administrators around the country, they are in a tough position with regards to cancel culture in their own right. As Ravin put it, “most of the administration wants to be supportive. … The problem is that the administration also wants to support the DEI (diversity equality and inclusion)-driven progressives, the very people who shut down speech.” 

“There’s a sense among students that religious perspectives shouldn’t be lent as much credence as secular ones.”

This is where organizations like the Buckley Institute can make a difference. By providing a counterweight in favor of free speech, the Buckley Institute gives supportive university administrators breathing space to do the right thing. If only the cancellers speak up, administrators who support free speech can do little to oppose them. 

The most important work is directly with the students, though. The Buckley Institute brings diverse perspectives to campus on an almost weekly basis through our speaker series, Firing Line debates and seminars. Our annual Disinvitation Dinner introduces individuals who have been disinvited from other campuses to an audience that isn’t too afraid to hear them. Last fall, we distributed 1,600 copies of Yale’s free speech principles to every incoming freshman, better equipping them to support free speech on campus. 

But most important of all, what the Buckley Institute and similar organizations on other campuses provide is an environment where undergraduates can freely challenge ideas and be challenged. At Buckley, students learn that there are perspectives outside of the campus orthodoxy, even if they won’t be exposed to them in the classroom. 

A re-education on free speech

There are many proposals about what to do to rescue the increasingly illiberal college campus. Some focus on tackling the DEI bureaucracies that have chilled speech for faculty and student alike. And Yale’s bureaucracy, which has at times included more than one administrator for every undergraduate, could definitely use reform.

But if America’s undergraduates want censorship, then these efforts will have little meaningful effect. If America’s undergraduates aren’t taught the value of free speech, all the legislation in the world will have little impact on the problems American universities are facing. 

Educating the next generation about the importance of free speech is essential. Bringing speakers with diverse viewpoints, as the Buckley Institute does, is the only way to build a caucus in favor of a robust free speech culture on campus. Demonstrating that diverse viewpoints aren’t dangerous viewpoints will create a student body welcoming to ideas that challenge rather than conform. 

As our polling shows, students at Yale and across the country are afraid to speak up in class. Unless we do something, the problem will only get worse.  

Lauren Noble is founder and executive director of the Buckley Institute.

This story appears in the May issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.