Most UW Students Fearful of Expressing Unpopular Views

Feb. 1, 2023

The results of a survey on free speech at University of Wisconsin campuses released on Wednesday shows most students are afraid to share their views on controversial issues, but they believe that their fellow students are not.

The survey examined undergraduate students at each of the 13 comprehensive university campuses from Nov. 14 – Dec. 9, 2022. There were 10,445 respondents, a 12.5% response rate.

The first surprising discovery involves the UW’s student demographics. 10.2% of the UW students reported that they were transgender. That’s almost eight times the national average according to the New York Times, which reported 1.3% of 18 – 24-year-olds are transgender just this past summer. Additionally, 25% of UW students said they were not heterosexual.

Politically, 40.1% of students said they were somewhat or very liberal, while 26.4% said they were somewhat or very conservative. Another 26% said they were moderates, and 8.1% didn’t respond.

The survey asked if students would be willing to consider differing viewpoints on a variety of subjects. Sexual assault, abortion, and transgender issues got the strongest reactions, with 38% stating they would not consider alternate viewpoints on sexual assault, 34% on abortion, and 31% on transgender issues. Students were even hesitant about the least controversial issue on the list, bridges and roads. Only 42% said they were very or extremely willing to hear different opinions about that.

Students were then asked how comfortable they feel discussing each topic. They felt the least comfortable talking about transgender issues. Most males, heterosexuals, Republicans, and conservatives stated they were “not at all or a little comfortable” discussing the issue. Non-cisgenders (44%), non-heterosexuals (50.8%), Democrats (44.6%), and those describing themselves as “very liberal” (58.9%) were the most comfortable.

Throughout the survey questions, males, cisgenders, heterosexuals, Republicans, and those describing themselves as “somewhat conservative” felt the most uncomfortable expressing their views on controversial issues. The survey suggests there’s a good reason for that.

Many students believe that “people who express offensive views are causing harm,” including 46.9% of females, 55.4% of non-heterosexuals, 44.9% of non-whites, 56.7% of Democrats, and 69.4% of the very liberal. Oftentimes, they also see offensive views as “an act of violence toward vulnerable people,” including 37.7% of females, 44.9% of non-heterosexuals, 37.2% of non-whites, 45% of Democrats, and 58.1% of the very liberal.

As a whole, students were strongly influenced by the wording of questions. For example, should administrators ban harmful views? 21% say yes, while 53% say no. On the other hand, should administrators allow harmful views? 26% say yes, while 46% say no.

More students than not believe teachers should be reported who say something harmful (43% versus 32%). Political beliefs were the strongest indicator of where students fell on that issue, with 71% of the very liberal saying the teacher should be reported, while only 13.6% of the very conservative thinking so.

Interestingly, 74% of very liberal students said their teachers “encourage students to explore a wide variety of viewpoints,” while on 35% of very conservative students thought so. Also, 47.2% of very liberal students say teachers make students with unpopular views feel comfortable expressing them, while only 23.2% of very conservative students thought so.

Students were more forgiving when it came to their fellow students saying something harmful. Only 30% said they should be reported, compared to 42% who said they should not. Even the very liberal softened on this question, with 50.5% saying the student should be reported.

Perhaps not surprising, 5,902 out of the 10,445 survey respondents (57%) said they had wanted to share an opinion about a controversial issue in class but decided against it. Most of them (61%) said it was because they feared their fellow students disagreed with them. Another 46% said they were afraid their teachers would label their opinions as offensive. Over 41% said they were afraid the teacher would lower their grade if they didn’t agree with them. Those fears increased the more conservative and less liberal the student. Only 12% of very liberal students feared a lower grade for expressing their opinions in class, while 73% of very conservative students feared lower grades for expressing themselves.

Again, there’s good reason for this fear. The survey revealed that when students engaged in free expression in class, they faced “institutional consequences” 1% of the time when they were very liberal, 2% of the time when they were somewhat liberal, 4% of the time when they were moderate, 3% of the time when they were somewhat conservative, and 6% of the time when they were very conservative.

Those students faced “social consequences” from the fellow students 11% of the time when they were very liberal, 12% of the time when they were somewhat liberal, 16% of the time when they were moderate, 28% of the time when they were somewhat conservative, and 33% of the time when they were very conservative.

However, students were the toughest on invited speakers. Only 25% of students felt that administrators should not disinvite speakers that some students find offensive. In situations when students find a speaker’s message offensive, 3.1% (including 4.2% of the very liberal) said it was acceptable to “force speaker from stage.” Another 7.1% (including 17.4% of the very liberal) said it was okay to “attend & disrupt with noise.”

Despite most students saying they don’t feel comfortable sharing their own views on many issues, they described a positive atmosphere for free expression. 98% said students with views different from their own were willing to share them. 91% said students are interested in discussing controversial issues. Those were apparently UW System President Jay Rothman’s main takeaways.

“There’s no better place than a university for the marketplace of ideas to flourish,” Rothman said. “It’s our goal to make the UW System an even stronger voice for passionate debate and civic engagement.”

Unfortunately, you have to ignore most of the results of the survey to actually believe that.