Georgetown University students conduct a sit-in in November in solidarity with other student protests across the country protesting racial discrimination on campus. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

Okay, maybe conservatives are right to freak out about illiberal lefty militancy on college campuses.

Today’s students are indeed both more left wing and more openly hostile to free speech than earlier generations of collegians.

Don’t believe me? There are hard data to prove it.

For 50 years, researchers have surveyed incoming college freshmen about everything from their majors to their worldviews. On Thursday, the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles released the latest iteration of this survey, which included 141,189 full-time, first-year students attending about 200 public and private baccalaureate institutions around the country.


According to the findings, the current crop of freshmen can lay claim to multiple superlatives. Among them: most willing to shut down speech they find offensive.

About 71 percent of freshmen surveyed in the fall said they agreed with the statement that “colleges should prohibit racist/sexist speech on campus.” This question has been asked on and off for a couple of decades, and 2015 logged the highest percentage of positive responses on record. For comparison, the share in the early 1990s hovered around 60 percent; also high, but not as high as today.

What speech counts as “racist” or “sexist” is of course in the eye of the beholder, as evidenced by recent attempts to silence public discourse on racially and sexually charged topics at Wesleyan, Yale and Northwestern universities.

A related survey question, which has been asked most years since 1967, inquired whether “colleges have the right to ban extreme speakers from campus.”

About 43 percent of freshmen said they agreed. That’s nearly twice as high as the average share saying this in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. It was surpassed only once, just barely, in 2004. But in general, support for banning speakers from campuses has trended upward over time.

Recent incidents suggest students (and sometimes their professors) may have rather expansive views of what constitutes an “extreme speaker.” Among those disinvited or forced to withdraw from campus speaking engagements in the past few years are feminism critic Suzanne Venker, former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde and Narendra Modi, now the Indian prime minister.

Yale University students gathered to protest Nov. 5 2015, over faculty members' e-mails regarding culturally sensitive Halloween costumes. One student confronted Nicholas Christakis, the master of Silliman College. (Greg Lukianoff/FIRE)

Another survey question asked freshmen whether they would participate in student demonstrations while in college; 8.5 percent said there was a “very good chance” they would.

That, too, was the highest share on record, higher even than responses recorded during the years of Vietnam protests. In 1968 — the year of a tumultuous Columbia University student takeover — just 4.5 percent of freshmen nationwide said they expected to protest.

This question saw a big spike in positive responses just in the past year, perhaps reflecting the spate of demonstrations sweeping schools around the country.

Some of these protests have been quite successful. Students at the University of Missouri, for example, demanded that their president resign over the administration’s poor handling of racial tensions. The school’s celebrated football team threatened not to play unless he complied. Ultimately the president stepped down.

Student groups from at least 76 schools have now issued their own “demands” (not suggestions!), according to lists compiled by the website thedemands.org. A FiveThirtyEight analysis found that the modal “demand” related to increasing diversity (greater diversity of professors and students, more diversity sensitivity training, etc.), but many “demands” also involved speech codes, public apologies and resignations.

One last freshman survey finding of interest: The highest share of students since 1973 now consider themselves left of center. And the highest share of college freshmen ever (or at least since this question was first asked in 1970) call themselves “far left.”

All of which is to say that — while I support and admire students’ efforts to make the world a better place — I also kind of understand the right’s fear that student activism may be disparately used to muzzle conservative viewpoints.

Heck, some students are trying to muzzle liberal and moderate viewpoints. I’m hardly an arch-conservative, and whenever I write things that college students disagree with, I get a lot of email demanding retraction, recantation, apology, prostration. Some younger readers — not all that much younger than I, mind you — have accused my writing of “taking away” both their voices and their agency, as if free speech were zero-sum.

One parting observation: Remember that these survey questions were asked of newly matriculated college freshmen. That is, students are setting foot on campus already more liberal, more protest-happy and more amenable to speech restrictions than their predecessors.

Which suggests that colleges themselves are not wholly responsible for rising liberal and illiberal tendencies on campus — even if they do sometimes aid and abet both trends.