college protest

Jennifer Stefano: Conservative students can’t speak freely, and that’s bad for everyone

America’s colleges and universities foster a censorship culture that intimidates and silences students, professors, and university guest speakers, and the negative consequences go far beyond limiting the benefits of free and open debate, writes Philadelphia Inquirer columnist and Commonwealth FoundationExecutive Vice President Jennifer Stefano in her column this week.

Stefano writes:

Conservative students cannot speak freely in the way their liberal counterparts can. According to a new poll by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and the University of Chicago Forum for Free Inquiry and Expression, just 20% of adults believe that conservatives have “a lot” of freedom to express their views on college campuses, while 47% of those polled believe left-leaning students have such freedoms. …

As censorship of conservative ideas has grown, so has the college mental health crisis. The most recent assessment of health at colleges by the American College Health Association in 2021 found nearly 50% of college students experience moderate or serious psychological distress. In the Healthy Minds Study, which collects data from 373 campuses nationwide, in 2020-21 more than 60% of college students met the criteria for a mental health problem. That’s a nearly 50% jump from 2013.

Correlation is not causation, and certainly, the impacts of the pandemic are partly to blame for this rapid decline in students’ mental health. But in a now famous 2015 article in the Atlantic, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and free speech legal expert Greg Lukianoff, the CEO of FIRE, argued there is a growing body of evidence that censorship-driven academic elites can mentally damage the people they seek to help.

In their 2018 best-selling book, The Coddling of the American Mind, Lukianoff and Haidt repudiate the idea of trigger warnings and safe spaces. They debunk the three concepts that have become sacred amongst America’s academic elites: what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker, always trust your feelings, and life is a battle between good people and evil people. The insistence on these ideas, they argue, is making college kids more fragile and more likely to suffer from catastrophizing and black-and-white thinking that, they say, can lead to greater instances of anxiety and depression. …

Chloe Carmichael, clinical psychologist and author of the book Nervous Energy: Harness the Power of Your Anxiety, told me that censorship and the pervasiveness of safe spaces make it harder for students to feel social trust.

“Your social support network is strongest when your social relationships are authentic,” Carmichael said. “We can’t have truly authentic relationships that are built on trust when everybody’s hiding their true viewpoint for fear of being canceled.”

Without social trust, it’s hard for people to move from fragility to strength, leaving students even more vulnerable to poor mental health outcomes.

Rather than practicing censorship, leaders on college campuses should refocus their energy on teaching students the art of rhetoric and debate. This, in turn, will strengthen their students’ minds and ideas.

You can read Stefano’s entire column here.


The Commonwealth Foundation transforms free-market ideas into public policies so all Pennsylvanians can flourish.