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High School Students Need A Lesson on Free Speech

Discomfort is at the core of real education.

As high schools prepare to reopen and in-person teaching resumes, students will face many unknowns. One question that must be answered this fall is whether the cancel culture that has plagued the nation will continue in our education institutions.

Sadly, new data suggest that the strong impulse to silence those who might be offensive to some will continue. High school communities should push back against current tendencies, however, and demand students have the chance to confront challenging ideas and experience the discomfort that is at the core of the educational enterprise.

At the university level, it is already well documented that conservative faculty regularly hide their views for fear of retaliation from students and administrators. Students are choosing to keep quiet on campuses and in their classrooms, too, for fear of retaliation from peers and developing a long-term reputation that may affect internships, careers, and social standing.

These trends now extend to high schools, too. Numerous stories have emerged chronicling the fear and intimidation students experience when challenging the progressive ideas prominent in elite New York City schools. The question of who can speak and what ideas can be debated openly has not been well documented in high schools, but new data reveal just how willing high schools students are to silence ideas they dislike or speech they find offensive. A new survey from Next Generation Politics, a New York-based organization aimed at helping high school students foster a culture of cross-partisan dialogue and civic engagement, asked 250 students at private schools around New York about their views on contemporary culture and school life.

The survey’s findings should give New Yorkers, parents, communities, and educators everywhere real pause. Large numbers of high school students are willing to shut down and limit the speech of others if they think it could be “hurtful” to some. A majority of high school students (52 percent) believe it would be acceptable to disinvite speakers if some students perceive the speaker’s message as offensive or biased. Almost two-thirds (64 percent) of students sampled support instituting codes of conduct that restrict potentially offensive or biased speech on campus. And 86 percent of students support “safe spaces”—areas of campus designed to be free from allegedly threatening actions, ideas, or conversations.

High school students need to be taught the value of debate, free speech, and civil discourse. When asked about the acceptability for students to protest and shout down a speaker, 31 percent of high school students said shouting down a speaker is permissible always or some of the time while 22 percent say is it never acceptable. The plurality of students surveyed (46 percent) believe shouting down a speaker is rarely acceptable, but can be acceptable nonetheless.

In contrast, a 2020 survey by College Pulse found that 27 percent of college students thought shouting down a speaker or trying to prevent them from speaking was either always or sometimes acceptable. About a third (34 percent) held that it was rarely acceptable, and 38 percent stated it was never acceptable.

Half of high school students say they would be able to justify blocking their peers from hearing certain views or attending an event. While 48 percent of students surveyed said it is never acceptable to block other students from entering an event, 36 percent said it was rarely acceptable and another 14 percent said it was sometimes or always acceptable.

College students were, again, better on speech. Only some 38 percent of college students can find cases where blocking is acceptable, compared to the half of high school students who say the same. The College Pulse survey found that almost two-thirds of college students (62 percent) stated it is never acceptable to block students from entering a campus event. Eleven percent said it was always or sometimes acceptable, and another 27 percent said it is rarely acceptable.

Far too many high school students are willing to silence and limit speech. While the students surveyed by Next Generation Politics may not be representative of all high schoolers across America, their views remain dangerous to the academic enterprise. Speech can be provocative and even offensive, but it does not mean ideas are intrinsically harmful and the nation has a long and valued history of protecting speech and free expression even when it may disturb and unsettle some.

Education should be messy. Those in the educational profession know this and need to exemplify this idea more robustly. Students will and should occasionally be mad, uncomfortable, and feel unsettled by new information and perspectives. That is how learning happens; norms are shattered, prejudices and histories are critically evaluated.

Real engagement with viewpoint diversity is essential. As a sign in front of Vanderbilt University’s library proclaims, “A great library has something in it to offend everyone.” That is what a good secondary education program should do for all students; students will grow and be better off for it.

Samuel J. Abrams is professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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