ACTA in the News | Freedom of Expression

Will The Ohio State University Provide a Genuine Education for Citizenship?

REALCLEAREDUCATION   |  June 7, 2023 by Michael B. Poliakoff and Steven McGuire

The motto of The Ohio State University (OSU) is Disciplina In Civitatem, Education for Citizenship. This motto is fitting for this esteemed land-grant institution. OSU will uphold it only if its students learn to engage in civil, respectful dialogue and consider political and social ideas that deviate from prevailing campus beliefs.

A recent survey conducted by College Pulse on behalf of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, encompassing 2,003 OSU students, reveals that Ohio’s flagship university has room for improvement.

According to the survey, one-third of OSU respondents stated that it is “always” or “sometimes” acceptable to shout down a guest speaker whose views they find offensive. While protest (notably “peaceable assembly”) is a healthy form of free expression protected by our First Amendment, exercising the so-called “heckler’s veto” is not. It is crucial to consider how long it will be until incidents like those involving Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan at Stanford University or former University of Kentucky swimmer Riley Gaines at San Francisco State University occur at OSU. The University of Pittsburgh, where protesters recently burned commentator Michael Knowles in effigy, is not far away. 

When a significant number of students are willing to shout down individuals expressing differing views, it is unsurprising that 50% of surveyed students admitted to occasionally self-censoring, while one-fifth claimed to do so fairly or very often. How can students learn to actively participate in a pluralistic, democratic society if they consistently refuse to listen to others’ perspectives or abstain from sharing their own?

The disparities between liberal and conservative students are particularly noteworthy. Liberal students, who comprise two-thirds of the student body (48% identified as liberal compared to 24% conservative), are much more inclined than conservatives to shout down speakers (54% to 35%). They are also less likely to feel the need for self-censorship (21% admit to doing so fairly or very often, compared to 51% of conservatives).

College is a transformative period when many individuals form lifelong friendships. These friendships are essential bonds that help to unify our society, as friends are more inclined to find compromise and less likely to be torn apart by political disagreements. However, at OSU, 71% of liberal students report having “few” to no friends with different political beliefs. Furthermore, 28% of conservative students claim to have lost friends due to their political views, compared to only 8% of liberal students.

These statistics suggest that students are not getting the opportunity to engage with diverse perspectives, and are not forming relationships that would enable them to overcome the polarization prevalent in American society. OSU’s mission of “preparing a diverse student body to be leaders and engaged citizens” should include regular exposure to the entire spectrum of political opinions found in American society.

Fortunately, the OSU administration can take steps to improve the situation. Only 28% of OSU students believe it is “extremely” or “very” clear that their administration safeguards free speech, while 51% of conservatives feel it is “not very” or “not at all” clear. The administration must foster an environment on campus that embraces free expression and encourages diversity of thought. This can be achieved by enhancing free expression education during new student orientation, prohibiting the use of diversity statements in hiring, and promoting events and activities that embody commitments to free expression and intellectual diversity, such as campus debates and speaker series that showcase contrasting viewpoints. Additionally, OSU should strive to cultivate an intellectually diverse faculty.

As OSU searches for a new president, a crucial criterion for candidates should be their track record in promoting intellectual diversity and freedom of speech, as well as their strategies for the university.

OSU has the potential to move beyond these disturbing findings and genuinely provide students with an education for citizenship. Adopting these proposals will serve as an indication of OSU’s intent.

This article appeared on RealClearEducation on June 5, 2023.


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