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First published online May 2, 2018

Who Decides What Is Acceptable Speech on Campus? Why Restricting Free Speech Is Not the Answer


Recent protests on dozens of campuses have led to the cancellation of controversial talks, and violence has accompanied several of these protests. Psychological science provides an important lens through which to view, understand, and potentially reduce these conflicts. In this article, we frame opposing sides’ arguments within a long-standing corpus of psychological research on selective perception, confirmation bias, myside bias, illusion of understanding, blind-spot bias, groupthink/in-group bias, motivated skepticism, and naive realism. These concepts inform dueling claims: (a) the protestors’ violence was justified by a higher moral responsibility to prevent marginalized groups from being victimized by hate speech, versus (b) the students’ right to hear speakers was infringed upon. Psychological science cannot, however, be the sole arbiter of these campus debates; legal and philosophical considerations are also relevant. Thus, we augment psychological science with insights from these literatures to shed light on complexities associated with positions supporting free speech and those protesting hate speech. We conclude with a set of principles, most supported by empirical research, to inform university policies and help ensure vigorous freedom of expression within the context of an inclusive, diverse community.
In the spring of 2017, protests and cancellation of a speech by conservative/libertarian Charles Murray at Middlebury College in Vermont provoked international attention. In the aftermath, extensive coverage in major print media—such as the New York Times (Stanger, 2017), The Atlantic (Bendix, 2017), and The Wall Street Journal (“The mob at Middlebury,” 2017)—addressed free speech norms and profiled protestors bent on preventing classmates from hearing speakers whom protesters abhorred. Dozens of similar cancellations have occurred on campuses across North America recently (see examples below). Here, we focus on the cancellation at Middlebury College, not because it is unique but because of its extensive documentation. This particular protest and cancellation is relevant to cancellations on dozens of other campuses and serves as a window through which to view and discuss a constellation of psycho-legal factors relevant to the dual aims of maintaining an inclusive campus community while steadfastly ensuring free expression. In the following analysis of campus cancellations, we provide a missing element—concepts from psychological science that help explain the entrenched arguments of both sides and the reasons why they overestimate the strength of their evidence and downgrade their opponent’s argument. However, by itself, psychological science provides an incomplete account of the dueling sides’ beliefs; legal and philosophical analyses are also relevant, and hence we provide a psycho-legal analysis on what is emerging as a key issue on college campuses.

Middlebury Protests and Cancellation

Within days of the disturbance by a group of students and some faculty members that led to the cancellation of Murray’s talk, more than 100 Middlebury faculty signed a statement critical of the protestors:
No group of professors or students has the right to act as final arbiter of the opinions that students may entertain. No group of professors or students has the right to determine for the entire community that a question is closed for discussion. The purpose of college is not to make faculty or students comfortable in their opinions and prejudices. (Parini et al., 2017, paras. 11–13)
Elsewhere, roughly 4,500 people (mostly faculty) signed an online statement drafted by Robert George and Cornel West—two scholars with opposing political views—who put aside their differences to jointly criticize the Middlebury protestors (we are among the signatories to this letter):
We should oppose efforts to silence those with whom we disagree—especially on college and university campuses. . . . All of us should be willing—even eager—to engage with anyone who is prepared to do business in the currency of truth-seeking discourse by offering reasons, marshaling evidence, and making arguments. The more important the subject under discussion, the more willing we should be to listen and engage—especially if the person with whom we are in conversation will challenge our deeply held—even our most cherished and identity-forming—beliefs. (George & West, 2017, paras. 2 and 4)
Dozens of other speakers—for example, Ann Coulter, Milo Yiannopoulos, Heather MacDonald, James Watson, Charles Murray, Tommy Robinson, Christina Hoff Sommers, Brett Weinstein, Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro, and many others—were cancelled at colleges such as the University of California (UC)-Berkeley (Senju, 2017), University of Toronto (Genuinewitty, 2016), McMaster University (Beatty, 2017), Yale University (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, 2015b), Evergreen College (Richardson, 2017), Amherst College (Chasmar, 2015), University of Michigan, (Slagter, 2017), Columbia University (Ruptly, 2017), University of Massachusetts (Bettis, 2016), University of Illinois (“U. of I. Cancels Talk,” 2017), Claremont McKenna College (Blume, 2017), University of Oregon (“Students Disrupt Speech,” 2017), Virginia Tech University (Roll, 2017), College of William and Mary (Bauer-Wolf, 2017a), Texas Southern University (Jaschik, 2017a), and University of Connecticut (Barbash, 2017). These cancellations, as well as the Middlebury cancellation, illustrate concepts that lie at the heart of psychology, which we invoke later. Although these speakers differ in their comportment, political leanings, and degree of extremism, the psychological concepts are relevant to them all.

What are the psychological mechanisms?

A corpus of scientific research has documented judgment and decision-making biases relevant to campus protests. Some of this research dates back a half century to demonstrations of selective perception and other reasoning biases (Hastorf & Cantril, 1954; Janis, 1971; Lord, Ross, & Lepper, 1979). Other biases were discovered more recently. Together, they demonstrate that participants prefer to learn information from in-group sources and agree more with in-group members on moral and political issues, and this preference can be found even among preschoolers (e.g., Hetherington, Hendrickson, & Koenig, 2014). Research with adults has revealed that they
exhibit selective perception, in which witnesses perceive the same event differently (Hastorf & Cantril, 1954);
rate the quality of in-group members’ arguments more positively and adopt more extreme positions (E.-J. Lee, 2007);
overestimate the depth of their understanding of controversial issues, known as the illusion of understanding bias (Fernbach, Rogers, Fox, & Sloman, 2013);
view the other side as more biased than their own side, called the blind-spot bias (Ehrlinger, Gilovich, & Ross, 2005);
exhibit myside bias in collecting confirmatory evidence and evaluating it positively (Stanovich, West, & Toplak, 2013);
credit their affiliation with an issue as the basis for their greater enlightenment, but regard similar affiliations of opponents as a source of bias (Ehrlinger et al., 2005);
regard their arguments as grounded in what is really “out there” whereas their opponent’s arguments are not, known as naive realism (Gilovich & Ross, 2016);
view attitudinally congruent arguments as more valid than opposing arguments even when the validity of information is controlled, which increases polarity over time, so-called motivated skepticism (Taber & Lodge, 2006); and
demonstrate lack of awareness of their own lack of knowledge and competence (Kruger & Dunning, 1999).
The first psychological concept relevant to campus free-speech is selective perception (Hastorf & Cantril, 1954). Research shows how two opposing sides actually “see” the same event differently, something that was dramatically revealed at Middlebury, UC-Berkeley, the University of Connecticut, and elsewhere, when protestors perceived the campus police to have behaved differently than did those who were attacked. Selective perception and myside bias have direct relevance for what is occurring on campuses across the United States and Canada. These concepts, together with naive realism, illusion of understanding, blind-spot bias, and motivated skepticism, offer not only an explanation of why opposing sides fail to see the validity of each other’s argument but also the promise of interventions, because they relate to the moderation of extremist attitudes and help engender appreciation for different opinions. However, before analyzing the role of these psychological concepts in contemporary campus protests, we revisit a historical instantiation of selective perception. It bears an uncanny similarity to some of the campus disturbances today.

They saw (nearly) the same game: Princeton versus Dartmouth, 1951

In 1951, Dartmouth’s football team visited Princeton for the final game of its season. Both teams had skin in the game: Princeton was ranked sixth nationally, and its star quarterback, Dick Kazmaier, was mentioned as a possible All-American and Heisman-trophy winner and appeared on the cover of TIME magazine. (He would go on to become the last Ivy League athlete to win the Heisman trophy.) The only thing that stood in the way of Princeton’s perfect 9-0 season was Dartmouth. Both teams were fired up, and from the outset they were penalized for roughing each other’s running backs. Princeton’s Kazmaier left the game in the second quarter with a broken nose and concussion, and a Dartmouth quarterback was carried off with a broken leg. Afterward, accusations of dirty play were leveled by each side against the other.
Hastorf and Cantril (1954) showed a film of this game to 163 Dartmouth fans and 161 Princeton fans, asking them to note each infraction and to indicate whether it was “mild” or “flagrant.” Eighty-six percent of Princeton supporters thought Dartmouth instigated the dirty play; they saw Dartmouth players commit more than twice as many infractions as the Princeton players did (9.8 vs. 4.2). In contrast, the 163 Dartmouth students saw equal numbers of infractions committed by both teams (4.3 vs. 4.4). Each team’s supporters saw the majority of flagrant violations committed by opposing players. Thus, despite viewing the identical event, each side’s supporters displayed selective perception about who started the dirty plays and who committed the most infractions, which brings us back to Middlebury and other campuses across the United States (Senju, 2017) and Canada (Beatty, 2017) that have been the scene of recent disruptions of invited speakers. Other countries have experienced cancellations too. In the United Kingdom, the National Union of Students “de-platformed” speakers from Al-Muhajiroun, the British National Party, the English Defense League, Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Muslim Public Affairs Committee, and National Action (Mason, 2017). Selective perception is evident in the disparate views regarding the behavior of police in quelling most of these protests.

Charles Murray shouted down at Middlebury College

Charles Murray, the political scientist and conservative/libertarian pundit, had been invited by members of Middlebury’s American Enterprise Institute Club to give a lecture on his 2012 book, Coming Apart (Murray, 2012). Allison Stanger, a liberal political science professor who disagreed with some of Murray’s views, agreed to moderate the question and answer (Q&A) session at the end of his lecture. She was looking forward to challenging Murray’s views. However, among the 400-plus audience members, there were—depending on the source—100 to 200 student protestors who, along with some faculty members, prevented Murray from speaking. From the start, they turned their backs on the podium and shouted incessantly, banged chairs, and chanted so loudly that after 20 minutes of uninterrupted noise, the talk was cancelled. Murray was then escorted to a studio in the basement where a summary of his talk about Coming Apart and a discussion with Professor Stanger was attempted via live stream. At times this live stream was interrupted by protestors who, having discovered the location, banged on the outer walls and the door to the studio, set off fire alarms, and shouted, leading Murray to stop summarizing his book and ask Stanger: “What am I saying that requires me to be shut up?” (Middlebury Newsroom, 2017, at 12 min and 25 s).
Those who had tickets to hear Murray’s public talk never got the chance, which provoked pushback similar to that following the violent UC-Berkeley protests the month before. Commentators expressed mostly negative reactions toward the Middlebury protestors. In response, some protestors justified their actions by invoking the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which labeled Murray a White nationalist on the basis of his 1994 book, The Bell Curve. Some protestors argued that he did not deserve the right to speak from a podium, which relegated them to asking questions from the floor, creating a power differential. Others argued that because Middlebury’s president shared the stage with Murray, this amounted to an endorsement of his racist and sexist views. (The president herself disagreed with some of Murray’s previous arguments and, along with Professor Stanger, looked forward to debate during the Q&A.) After repeated interruptions of the live stream, Stanger and Murray were leaving the studio to drive to dinner with students and faculty when they were assailed by waiting protestors who pounded on the roof of the car, blocked its egress with barriers, and assaulted Stanger, whose hair was pulled, resulting in a trip to the hospital where she was diagnosed with neck injuries and given a neck brace. Two days later, after realizing she was driving the wrong way on a street she had driven on for decades, she returned to the hospital and was treated for a concussion and whiplash (Stanger, 2017). To Stanger, the protestors’ actions were based on a lack of understanding of Murray’s book, Coming Apart, which many confessed to not having read. Stanger, a critic of Murray’s writings, wrote that the protestors knew only their side’s argument:
[They] are deeply susceptible to a renunciation of reason and celebration of ignorance. They know what they know without reading, discussing or engaging those who might disagree with them. People from both sides of the aisle reject calm logic, eager to embrace the alternative news that supports their prejudices. (Stanger, 2017, para. 15)
Like the 1951 Dartmouth-Princeton contest, there are multiple sides to this story, and not everyone agrees with critics. Some view the protesters as exercising their own right to free speech rather than suppressing the right of the audience, a view that finds no protection within campus speech codes that explicitly forbid this. A group of protestors argued they were justified in preventing Murray from speaking because “the speaker in question denies the basic equality of those invited to engage in such discourse. By protesting . . . the students did more to defend the integrity of reasoned and civil discourse at Middlebury than did the administration” (Brockelman et al., 2017, para. 5). A sociologist at Middlebury who supported the disruption wrote the following:
I am angry that students’ views were delegitimized because they had not read (Murray’s) entire oeuvre, meaning that to be able to fully participate in this rational debate they had to do extra work to prepare. So not only did they have to accept a racist on campus, they had to waste their weekend to read his work—long discredited by many already — in order to be able to take part in this wonderful dialogue. . . . I am angry that free speech is conflated with civil discourse . . . (Van Pelt, 2017, paras. 6 and 9)
On the other side, however, the perceptions were different and the same illusion exists of deeply understanding their side’s evidence (Fernbach et al., 2013), as well as a blind-spot bias that credits their side’s affiliation with enlightenment while dismissing the other side’s affiliation (Ehrlinger et al., 2005). Ticket-holders resented being told they could not hear Murray talk about the social and economic trends that have led to the deterioration of the White working class. His book, Coming Apart, documents decreasing White marriage rates, decreasing religiosity, and increased drug use among Whites, coupled with their diminished labor force participation. It has received starred reviews in The Economist, New York Times, and Bloomberg Business Weekly, and it has been hailed by pundits and scholars across the political divide.
Protestors who admitted to not having read Coming Apart presumably opposed Murray because of his earlier book, The Bell Curve (Herrnstein & Murray, 1994), which generated widespread criticism. Notwithstanding criticisms of The Bell Curve, including by us (Ceci, 1996, pp. 221–250), there were (and continue to be) those who argue that it represents reasonable scholarship (Haier, 2017; Winegard & Winegard, 2017). And, lest we forget, the book Murray was asked to lecture on, Coming Apart, has nothing to do with racial differences in IQ.
To refute such supporters necessitates confronting their arguments and evidence. Banning them from campus discussion will not extinguish their defense, and could even have the opposite effect. (When protestors prevented Heather MacDonald from speaking at Claremont McKenna College, her live stream was watched by 1,400 people, far more than the 250 whom protestors prevented from hearing her “live.”) The solution is more speech, not less.
Many protestors said that in addition to not having read Coming Apart, they had not read The Bell Curve either; they trusted other sources for justifying their contempt, frequently the SPLC’s verdict that it was racist or statements by other students and faculty to this effect, mimicking the illusion of understanding mentioned earlier. Of course, it is not necessarily unsound to be informed by one side. As one reviewer argued, one does not have to read Mein Kampf to know that Hitler believed in German superiority. However, the problem is in relying on one side’s argument to the exclusion of the other side’s when an issue is hotly contested. None of us should be confident after hearing only one side. Perhaps the protestors’ position ran along these lines: (a) Institutions have a moral obligation to oppose expressions that run counter to their goal of creating an inclusive, welcoming community; (b) although Murray’s Coming Apart may not have been divisive, The Bell Curve had been, 24 years earlier; (c) therefore, inviting one of its authors to speak could enhance the credibility of its racist argument and thereby recruit acolytes and impede the college’s goal of creating an inclusive environment.1
The First Amendment does not extend to nongovernmental actors. Thus, some colleges and companies (such as Google Inc.) may be permitted to restrict expressions that many (but by no means all) regard as hate speech. This is because such arguments run counter to the explicit goal of creating a diverse, inclusive community and could impede future recruitment. Had such an explicit articulation been put forward by protestors to justify banning Murray from speaking, it might have led to an informative public discussion of each step in the argument. This discussion would need to include agreed-upon definitions of hate speech, the balancing of competing campus goals (inclusion, freedom of expression), and a transparent and public process for deciding which expressions are permissible and which are not when campus goals and speech codes come into conflict with constitutionally protected speech. For example, some campus speech codes, such as the University of Michigan’s (now overturned), are far more restrictive than the First Amendment; they prohibit any expression that “demeans or stigmatizes” on the basis of race, gender, religion, and sexual orientation. Such codes are frequently challenged in court (Chemerinsky & Gillman, 2017) or overridden by state legislatures (e.g., North Carolina and Tennessee; details are provided later). Finally, this discussion would need to include a transparent process for judging potential speakers with historically controversial positions who are invited to speak about unrelated matters, along with a process for determining who is authorized to make these decisions (see James Watson example below).
From their perspective, protestors believed their behavior was peaceful and their shouting down of Murray was an expression of their free-speech rights rather than the suppression of the audience’s rights. Some protestors felt their peaceful chants and shouts were met with a violent response by the administration and Public Safety officers, “who continually asserted their support of a dangerous racist over the well-being of students. [These] personnel should be held accountable for these acts through appropriate disciplinary channels” (keychainmail, 2017, para. 10). A blog by students involved in the protest criticized the media for having “grossly misrepresented” what they believed to have transpired. They blamed the college for being too aggressive in trying to protect Murray (beyondthegreen14, 2017). Although Middlebury’s president stated she was looking forward to vigorous Q&A, in the eyes of protestors, her sharing the stage with him effectively endorsed his scholarship. Their perception of the events leading up to Professor Stanger’s assault differed from her own:
Professor Stanger’s hair was not intentionally pulled but was inadvertently caught in the chaos that Public Safety incited. It is irresponsible to imply that a protester aggressively and intentionally pulled her hair. . . . This is not respectful discourse, or a debate about free speech. These are not ideas that can be fairly debated, it is not ‘representative’ of the other side to give a platform to such dangerous ideologies. There is not a potential for an equal exchange of ideas. . . . [W]e see this talk as hate speech. (beyondthegreen14, 2017, paras. 4 and 11)
Elizabeth Siyuan Lee, a senior philosophy major, put it this way:
For too long, a flawed notion of “free speech” has allowed individuals in positions of power to spread racist pseudoscience in academic institutions, dehumanizing and subjugating people of color and gender minorities. . . . I do not think Middlebury made sufficient avenues for students to engage with the implications of Mr. Murray’s ideas. . . . [T]he event was co-sponsored by the political science department and featured opening remarks by the president of the College, elevating the speaker’s institutional legitimacy. While students have the right to bring speakers of all kinds to campus, the university itself must be responsible and academically honest when giving such events a show of approval through co-sponsorship. Much of Murray’s work is not peer-reviewed and his assertions are not scientifically proven. (“Discord at Middlebury,” 2017, paras. 6 and 7)
So, one side felt that it had a right to hear Murray’s lecture about Coming Apart and that this right should not have been denied because of some classmates’ unilateral determination that it represented dangerous hate speech: They argued that if protestors did not want to hear Murray, no one forced them to attend his talk—they could have skipped it or asked eviscerating questions during the Q&A. Those who were denied the opportunity to hear Murray’s talk argued that campuses have an obligation to make students challenge their cherished beliefs even when it makes them uncomfortable. As mentioned in the George and West (2017) online petition: “. . . [T]here) is a good reason to listen to and honestly consider—and not merely to tolerate grudgingly—points of view that we do not share, and even perspectives that we find shocking or scandalous.” However, the other side believed that the Murray talk was an institutionally sanctioned legitimization of a White supremacist. Members of this side wrote an impassioned defense of their actions (Brockelman et al., 2017) and criticized Middlebury faculty’s core principles governing civil discourse (Parini et al., 2017).
So, although the two sides attended the same game, they saw different infractions, and their perceptions about who instigated the dirty play were as disparate as the Dartmouth and Princeton supporters’ perceptions 67 years earlier. The two sides disagreed about (a) the manner in which Allison Stanger was injured, (b) whether Murray is a White supremacist, (c) whether protestors should be expected to read Murray’s work before shouting him down, (d) whether protestors exercised their own freedom of speech or suppressed others’ rights, and (e) whether the administration’s handling of the events surrounding Murray’s visit was appropriate. And above all, they vehemently disagreed about the sanctity of free speech that is offensive to some, and its compatibility with an inclusive, diverse environment, and the validity of invoking higher moral values to trump campus codes and constitutionally protected expression.
Thus, Middlebury’s two sides dug in, each with a total defense of their side and an unwillingness to take the perspective of the other side, engaging in selective perception, naive realism, motivated skepticism, the illusion of understanding, myside bias, and blind-spot bias. Those denied the chance to hear a speaker invited by their club demanded that those who deprived them be punished in accordance with the campus code, which explicitly prohibits making noises that interfere with an audience’s ability to hear a speaker. In contrast, the protestors relied on a social-justice defense to delegitimize Murray, silencing him rather than allowing others to make up their own minds. They wrote: “Science has always been used to legitimize racism, sexism, classism, transphobia, ableism, and homophobia, all veiled as rational and fact, and supported by the government and state” (beyondthegreen14, 2017, para. 12). (Similar social justice arguments were made in defense of the cancellation of talks on other campuses.2)
Some supporters of the protestors felt that the act of standing up to Murray was analogous to instances of historical opposition to tyrants and mass murderers, which, they argued, is morally justified even when it breaks the law (Flaherty, 2017). This is a position similar to the one endorsed by five protestors’ defense of violence at UC-Berkeley that led to the cancellation of a talk by the provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos (Senju, 2017). Regarding Middlebury, an individual who sympathized with the protesters made the following argument:
We have a moral duty to defy immoral laws . . . we cannot be “good Germans.” Period . . . sometimes the rights of others you seem to want to protect at all costs demand the trampling of the rights of someone else or some ‘out group.’ Absolute protection of immoral hate law or protecting rights that in turn criminalize a group because of their own human rights is as short sighted and wrong as shouting down some speaker or other. Read the Universal Declaration of Human rights. (Alsotps, 2017)
A recent Brookings poll revealed that 19% of college respondents support the use of violence to prevent someone from speaking who makes others uncomfortable (Villasenor, 2017). This same view is also reflected in the UC-Berkeley students’ statements. Along similar lines, a recent national survey of more than 3,000 Americans with college experience by the Cato Institute reported a willingness to censor, regulate, or punish a wide variety of expression they found offensive: 51% who self-identified as strongly liberal said it is “morally acceptable to punch Nazis in the face”; 74% of self-identified Democrats say universities should cancel speakers if students threaten violence (Ekins, 2017).
Peter Uvin, Claremont McKenna College’s vice president for academic affairs, disagreed with the claim that protests reflect a tension between the free-speech rights of audience members and those of protestors, the latter arguing that when they prevented MacDonald from speaking, they were opposing fascism and racism implicit in her writings as a proponent of the police. The divide between the two sides is wide and fundamental. Uvin made the following statement:
What we face here is not an attempt to demonstrate, or to ask tough questions of our speaker, all of which are both protected and cherished on this campus, but rather to make it impossible for her to speak, for you to listen, and for all of us to debate. This we could not accept. (Kabbany, 2017, para. 23)

Was Murray’s Planned Talk Hate Speech? A Modest Experiment

As noted, the U.S. Supreme Court considers hate speech insufficient to allow government actors, which includes most colleges, to ban it. Instead, banned speech on state-supported campuses must be not only hateful but also imminently dangerous. It is for this reason that the University of Florida and a number of other institutions have allowed Richard Spencer, the White-nationalist organizer, to speak on campus, despite the high cost for security. However, as noted, we do not believe that Murray’s planned talk was hateful or dangerous; it seemed to us that it was centrist social science. But we can do better than rely on impressions. After Murray was shouted down at his public talk, he was escorted to a studio in the basement of the same building where he and political scientist Allison Stanger attempted to conduct a live stream in which he presented the talk he was unable to give publicly. It was a summary of his book, Coming Apart, describing the increasing alienation from what Murray calls “the founding virtues” of civic life that took place among the White, non-Latino working class in America between 1960 and 2010: declining labor force participation, decreased religiosity and marriage rate, and increased opiate use and crime rate. Although some may disagree with Murray’s analysis of trends among working-class Whites, a transcript of his planned remarks sounded to us like centrist commentary. (Moreover, even if his talk had been strongly conservative, that would not justify silencing him.) To test our impression that Murray’s talk was centrist social science, we created a verbatim transcript of the first 14 min of the live-stream talk he gave after being prevented from speaking to the audience. It hewed closely to his book and bore no relation to his controversial 1994 book, The Bell Curve. In this live stream, Murray attempted to summarize the talk he was prevented from giving, but he never managed to finish. Around the 13 min and 30 s mark, he became distracted by protestors’ shouts and wall banging and the fire alarms that were set off. He can be heard asking the sound technician if listeners can hear what he was saying or if his comments were obscured by the noise outside the studio. Thus, our transcription stopped at this point.
We sent this transcript to 68 faculty members in the United States and Canada. This was not a scientific sample but a selection of faculty members who had participated in a national randomized cross-disciplinary email survey of faculty we had conducted earlier on an unrelated issue (Williams & Ceci, 2015). We did not tell these faculty that the transcription was a talk by Murray nor that it was connected to the disturbance at Middlebury College. We asked them to rate it on a 9-point scale (1 = strongly liberal, 5 = middle-of-the-road, 9 = strongly conservative). Fifty-seven of the 68 faculty members responded (plus two spouses, one of whom we included because she is also a professor). Their median rating of Murray’s talk was 5 (mean = 5.02, SD = 1.34). The most liberal rating was 2.5, and the most conservative rating was 8; of the 58 faculty ratings, 37 were between 4 and 6, or middle of the road. Thus, faculty in this convenience sample did not view Murray’s comments as dangerously conservative, and none of their written comments suggested anything remotely oriented toward hate speech. Many faculty provided comments about why they regarded the talk as liberal; we describe these comments below.
We also asked another group of 68 faculty to do the same rating, with one difference: We told them the text was from a speech by Charles Murray. This information made a statistical difference. The 44 who responded knowing it was written by Murray rated it as more conservative than did their blinded counterparts (M = 5.74, SD = 1.21), two-tailed t(96) = 2.74, p = .007. However, even this group’s mean was close to middle of the road. In sum, neither faculty group saw anything about Murray’s talk that deserved to be banned.
Faculty are far more liberal than the general population, and social psychologists in particular are overwhelmingly liberal (Haidt, 2011; Inbar & Lammers, 2012; Redding, 2001). For example, Von Hippel and Buss (2018) canvassed members of the Society of Experimental Social Psychology about their voting preferences (or whom they would have voted for) in the 2012 U.S. presidential election (37.2% response rate): 305 of the 335 respondents indicated that they had voted for Barack Obama, and only 4 had voted for Mitt Romney. On social issues such as abortion, gay marriage, and gun control, psychologists were overwhelmingly liberal—their mean rating was within 2 points of the extreme liberal end of an 11-point scale, and many chose 11 (fewer than 2% chose any option on the conservative side of the scale). When asked about their political leanings, 89.3% said left of center, 8.3% said centrist, and only 2.5% said right of center. In another survey of social psychologists, Inbar and Lammers (2012) canvassed the Society for Personality and Social Psychology discussion list, from which 292 individuals participated: 85% self-described as liberal, 9% as moderate, and only 6% as conservative (a ratio of 14:1). Furthermore, the trend toward political homogeneity increased across cohorts: Whereas 10% of faculty were conservative, only 2% of graduate students and postdocs were.3 Academics are influenced by ideology when hiring new faculty as well as when evaluating texts (e.g., Abromowitz, Gomes, & Abromowitz, 1975; Ceci & Williams, 2018; Kohler, 1993). For example, psychologists rate methodology differently depending on whether it is framed as conservative or liberal/progressive (Ceci, Peters, & Plotkin, 1985).
In light of social psychologists’ liberal tendency, it was of interest to determine how a nonacademic sample would view Murray’s talk. Would they share the faculty belief that it was middle-of-the-road? To find out, we paid 200 Amazon Mechanical Turk workers (mean age = 32 years) to do the rating. They rated their own political orientation on the 9-point scale, and the mean was 4.22, slightly to the liberal side of the scale. To insure they carefully read the transcript of Murray’s talk, we included two factual questions related to the talk at the end of the MTurk survey that they had to answer correctly. Their mean rating of the Murray text was 5.22 (SD 1.17), which is squarely centrist. Thus, all three groups of adults rated the Murray talk as centrist, ranging from 5.02 to 5.74 on a 9-point scale.
Of the 58 faculty members who were unaware that the talk was by Murray, 26 accompanied their ratings with comments. They frequently viewed the talk as a list of descriptive facts that were neither controversial nor conservative but mainly centrist or liberal:
“I see it as mostly apolitical (apart from a couple of opinionated words). I would rate it a 5”;
“If the author is taking an ideological position, I can’t see it. I see nothing pro/anti rich/capitalism, there is no ‘signaling’ that I can see. And the person does not even take a stand on whether the development described is good, bad, or some mix. It’s just descriptive of a social phenomenon”;
“I’d have to say 5 non-partisan. He or she is not talking politics or policy”;
“5. It seems more a series of observations than a political statement of any kind”;
“Mostly just using data to make a set of observations. 5”;
“A 5. It is more or less a recitation of well-known trends in education and the economy; nothing very controversial there”;
“I give it a 4. Mostly because I associate the topic with liberals. But the passage is rather descriptive. I don’t see an action agenda that could be more revealing.”
Many of these 26 “blind” respondents perceived it as centrist or liberal because of the themes addressed—class differences, innate talent, motivation—ones they felt conservatives would not address:
“In terms of its statements, it felt like a 5 to me. But I rated it a 3 because of the questions it asks, which are framed in terms of social class. To me, just asking those questions puts you left of center”;
“I would rate it a 3. Why? The ideas are factual—which might mean middle of the road 5. But no conservative would talk in terms of working classes or even think of classes per se. Also, there is a hint of it being bad that Trump got elected. Finally, there is a hint of intellectual elitism. And intellectual means liberal these days.”
Only 4 of the 26 blind respondents perceived signs of conservativism: “My guess is that most students and professors at top universities would guess conservative because he/she has gone on for a number of paragraphs without even mentioning race or gender or inequality or even poverty.”
In contrast, 18 of the 44 faculty who knew the talk was by Murray submitted comments, and 15 of them perceived conservatism:
“I give this an 8 toward the conservative wing. He’s upset that smart non-whites are able to make an end run around traditional white power positions, thus challenging white control of the country. Not surprised it was protested”;
“He sounds like he’s ‘blaming’ the folk who became more likely to have children out of wedlock and engage in more crime and at others ‘blaming’ the societal forces that made this likely; sometimes blaming the institutional forces that led to such inequity, other times applauding the people who are ‘very smart’ and new firms/arrangements that led to deserved wealth production”;
“I have researched political ideology, among other things, and I thought it (was conservative because) a) he is nostalgic for a time when we were all together (close to the 1950s as the good old days, which is pretty naive about non-white people and women), b) he is more concerned about how whites are doing than how everyone else is, and so forth”;
“The observations (in his talk) are coming mainly from the right end of the spectrum. . . . If you want a whole number, I say 8”;
“My rating of it as right-leaning is based more on what he omitted than what he said. There is no mention of things like institutional bias, differential opportunity, etc. So although he never directly says it, the remarks come across as reflecting (in my view) an underlying assumption that individuals have total control over the choices they make, which we know isn’t true.”
Thus, blinded respondents were less likely to see conservatism than were nonblinded respondents (p < .001).
In sum, MTurkers who as a group leaned slightly liberal and faculty who as a group are usually liberal both viewed Murray’s talk as centrist—nothing that would warrant labeling it as hate speech or justify preventing others from hearing it. Even had the majority viewed the talk as extremely conservative, it still would not justify infringing on others’ desire to hear Murray’s analysis. By taking it on themselves to prevent classmates from listening to a talk they had come to hear, protestors fell into the trap that Robert George and Cornell West criticized as the “idolatry of worshiping his or her own opinions and loving them above truth itself” (George & West, 2017, para. 3).
This underscores the point made by over a hundred Middlebury faculty in their statement of principles (Parini et al., 2017): No group of professors or students has the right to act as final arbiter of the opinions that students may entertain. No group of professors or students has the right to determine for the entire community that a question is closed for discussion. Before protestors presume it is their prerogative or even their obligation to prevent classmates from hearing someone speak (legal scholars do not consider the use of speech to disrupt a speaker as protected speech; otherwise, all speakers would be susceptible to a “heckler’s veto”), they should imagine how it would feel if classmates exercised the same option and prevented them from hearing a controversial speaker from their side of the political aisle. This is not a hypothetical or rhetorical question. Speakers who have strongly progressive credentials that some on the conservative side find offensive have not been shouted down by protestors when invited to speak on college campuses. For example, Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison has been politely received on campuses despite some being offended by his denial of Louis Farrakhan’s antisemitism, for which Ellison eventually issued an apology.

Legal Considerations: The First Amendment

The cancellation of talks on college campuses raises questions regarding the definition and boundaries of free speech and the complexities involved in reasoning about principles governing free speech. Although appellate courts and the U.S. Supreme Court over the years have issued rulings that have shaped current views of the First Amendment, they have repeatedly affirmed a core principle: Speech that merely offends or hurts the feelings of others, without eliciting a more dramatic and dangerous response, is protected against governmental suppression. Even hate speech, if it does not incite imminent danger (“real threats,” “fighting words”), is protected for governmental actors (e.g., those at state-supported universities). The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that even speech that advocates illegal or subversive acts may not be prohibited except when “such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action” (Brandenberg v. Ohio, 1969, p. 447).
Thus, the standard for legal prohibition of speech is high: it is not enough to be hateful; it must be imminently injurious (a “true threat”) or fall into a small class of exceptions such as child pornography, false or deceptive advertising, defamatory statements, true threats, or the incitement of illegal behavior, which are not protected by the First Amendment. As the noted First Amendment scholar Erwin Chemerinsky (2017) has pointed out, it is important to distinguish between the legal and colloquial use of “incitement.” Legally, speech can be punished as incitement only under conditions in which it creates a substantial and imminent likelihood of illegal activity and only when it is directed at advocating such activity (Brandenberg v. Ohio, 1969). Thus, Chemerinsky (2017) argues that even if a highly provocative speaker said hateful things, it would not constitute a harassment exception unless it created an imminent and dangerous “true threat” to someone, as opposed to sarcasm or hyperbole. (In Watts v. United States, 1969, an 18-year-old’s conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court because it deemed his utterance at a small public gathering as hyperbole when he stated that, if he was inducted into the Army and made to carry a rifle, “the first man I want to get in my sights is L.B.J.”). Chemerinsky notes: “I heard students say that merely having speakers expressing a hateful message on campus made them feel harassed. No court would ever find that was enough to meet the test for harassing speech unprotected by the First Amendment.” So-called fighting words or true threats by their very nature “inflict injury or tend to incite immediate breach of the peace” (Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 1942, p. 572) and “have a direct tendency to cause acts of violence” (p. 573) by the person to whom the remark is directed. Absent provocation of imminent violence, the Court has emphasized the responsibility of the targets of offensive speech to ignore it, move away from it, or divert their eyes from an offensive speaker, program, or message. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a draft resistor had the right to wear a jacket emblazoned with the slogan “Fuck the Draft” because persons offended could avert their eyes (Cohen v. California, 1971). This was the reason the president of the University of Florida allowed Richard Spencer to speak, despite the cost over a half-million dollars for security arrangements (Bauer-Wolf, 2017a).
Hundreds of campus speech codes are more restrictive than the Court’s rulings; roughly one in nine campuses have free-speech zones to limit speech to small areas (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, 2018), and some campus codes, such as that formerly used at the University of Michigan, prohibited “any behavior . . . that stigmatizes or victimizes an individual on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, sex, sexual orientation, creed, national origin, ancestry, age, marital status, handicap, or Vietnam-era veteran status” (Welch, 2014, p. 8); others forbid “unwelcome verbal, nonverbal, graphic, physical, electronic or other conduct that subjects an individual to an intimidating, hostile or offensive educational or employment environment.” (Bauer-Wolf, 2017b, para. 19). As Chemerinsky argues, such codes have not fared well in court; the ACLU has generally opposed them on the grounds that they violate well-established protections, and case after case has been overturned (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, 2015a). In an ironic turn at the College of William and Mary, Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the ACLU’s Virginia chapter, was prevented from discussing free speech issues. Minutes into her talk, students with signs lined the stage and drowned her out with chants of “ACLU, free speech for who?” “The oppressed are not impressed,” “ACLU, you protect Hitler, too,” “Blood on your hands,” “Shame! Shame! Shame!” and “Your free speech hides beneath white sheets.” Gastañaga was unable to continue and unable to talk with a smaller group of students afterward because of the volume of the chants.
Some state legislatures have overridden campus speech codes by reinforcing the need to protect speech regardless of how vile, or by extending First Amendment protections to private, nonpublic campuses. California, for example, passed the Leonard Law:
No private postsecondary educational institution shall make or enforce any rule subjecting any student to disciplinary sanctions solely on the basis of . . . speech . . . that, when engaged in outside the campus of a private postsecondary institution, is protected from governmental restriction by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution or Section 2 of Article 1 of the California Constitution. (Leonard Law, 2006)
States without a Leonard Law can pursue speech infringements at private universities in other ways. In New York, Fordham University students petitioned to start a Students for Justice in Palestine club (SJP) on the private religious campus. The student government approved the club unanimously, but the dean of students overruled the approval, saying the group would “stir up controversy,” be “polarizing,” and make students uncomfortable (Awad, et al. v. Fordham University, 2017, p. 6). According to the Anti-Defamation League (2014), SJP has “demonized Israel, describing Israeli policies toward the Palestinians as apartheid-like, and comparing Israelis to Nazis or Israel to the Jim Crow-era U.S.” (p. 1). Attorneys for students who were denied the right to establish the club filed an Article 78 Proceeding (a way of challenging the activities of an administrative agency in court) to determine whether the decision by the Fordham University administration was a violation of lawful procedure, affected by an error of law, was arbitrary and capricious, or was an abuse of discretion. Attorneys for the students are arguing that the denial violates free speech and association principles.
In addition, some states forbid public universities from canceling speakers invited by a student organization (or forbid requiring students to pay a higher ticket price to cover security costs). These state laws specifically forbid disrupting invited speakers whose views many find odious. The most recent states to legislate along these lines were North Carolina (“An Act to Restore and Preserve Free Speech . . .,” 2017) and Tennessee (Campus Free Speech Protection Act, 2017); many other states have enacted less sweeping protection of free speech, such as rejecting free speech zones (University of Cincinnati Chapter of YAL v. Williams, 2012). Recently, the state legislatures in a number of states, including Utah, Colorado, and Tennessee have joined Arizona, Virginia, and Missouri in banning free-speech zones, and Florida is currently considering a related bill.
The text of Tennessee’s law is as follows:
(a) the governing body of every institution shall adopt a policy that affirms the following principles of free speech . . . : (1) Students have a fundamental constitutional right to free speech; (2) An institution shall be committed to giving students the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, learn, and discuss any issue . . . ; (3) An institution shall be committed to maintaining a campus as a marketplace of ideas for all students and all faculty in which the free exchange of ideas is not to be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the institution’s community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, indecent, disagreeable, conservative, liberal, traditional, radical, or wrong-headed; . . . (5) It is not the proper role of an institution to attempt to shield individuals from free speech, including ideas and opinions they find offensive, unwise, immoral, indecent, disagreeable, conservative, liberal, traditional, radical, or wrong-headed; (6) . . . concerns about civility and mutual respect shall never be used by an institution as a justification for closing off the discussion of ideas, however offensive, unwise, immoral, indecent, disagreeable, conservative, liberal, traditional, radical, or wrong-headed those ideas may be to some students or faculty; (7) . . . To this end, an institution has a responsibility to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation and protect that freedom; . . . (c) Nothing in this section shall be construed to grant students the right to disrupt previously scheduled or reserved activities occurring in a traditional public forum. (pp. 3, 4, and 6)
Despite their restrictiveness, campus speech codes—including Middlebury’s—prohibit interference with audience members’ ability to hear speakers. However, protestors have argued that higher moral considerations supersede neoliberal values such as free speech. This view is evident not only in protestors’ arguments but also in a recent Brookings national survey of 1,500 undergraduates. Students were asked three questions:
1. Does the First Amendment protect “hate speech”? Across all political parties, fewer than half of students were aware that hate speech by governmental actors (which includes those at state universities) is constitutionally protected—39% of Democrats, 44% of Republicans, and 40% of Independents. Thus, the false assertion by UC-Berkeley protestors that hate speech is not protected is unsurprising (Hardman, 2018).
2. A public university invites a very controversial speaker . . . known for making offensive and hurtful statements. A student group opposed to the speaker disrupts the speech by loudly and repeatedly shouting so that the audience cannot hear. Do you agree or disagree the students’ actions are acceptable? Overall, 51% of students agreed it was acceptable to prevent others from hearing the speaker. This view was significantly more common among students who are self-described Democrats (62%) as opposed to Republicans (39%) or Independents (45%).
Finally, students were asked:
3. A student group opposed to the speaker uses violence to prevent the speaker from speaking. Do you agree or disagree that the student group’s actions are acceptable? Overall, 19% of respondents endorsed violence in this situation—20% of Democrats, 22% of Republicans, and 16% of Independents. Villasenor wrote:
While percentages in the high teens and low 20s are “low” relative to what they could be, it is important to remember that this question is asking about the acceptability of committing violence in order to silence speech. Any number significantly above zero is concerning. (Villasenor, 2017, para. 14).

The Philosophy of Free Speech: Rights and Obligations

Students have rights as well as responsibilities, as does the leadership on their campuses. Members of a campus community have the right to invite presentations by proponents of a given view, and others have the right to present counterarguments to it. (Although there is no Constitutional requirement for an opportunity for a counterargument, it makes good sense, both educationally and strategically.) However, the right to a counterargument must not preclude the views of speakers with whom some students disagree. Disdained views will not disappear just because they are banned; they can go underground and fester and even grow in support, as the live stream of Heather MacDonald following the cancelation of her talk demonstrates. The learning process thrives in an atmosphere in which all sides are allowed to present their case. We must beware one-party dogmatism and groupthink in which adherents make faulty decisions because group pressures lead them to ignore alternatives and dehumanize the opponent. A group is especially vulnerable when its members are insulated from alternative opinions (Janis, 1971).
Failure to steadfastly defend the discussion of unpopular views is as toxic to campus intellectual health as it is to the democratic health of nations. We must foster the respectful exchange of ideas, even ones that are shocking and that make us uncomfortable. Each side must learn the evidentiary basis of opponents’ cases; research shows that probing members for their understanding of mechanisms leads to moderation of extreme views (Fernbach et al., 2013). In his treatise On Liberty, John Stuart Mill argued,
He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion.” (Mill, 1859/1869, p. 21)
The British philosopher Isaiah Berlin made a similar argument
Few things have done more harm than the belief on the part of individuals or groups (or tribes or states or nations or churches) that he or she or they are in sole possession of the truth . . . & that those who differ from them are not merely mistaken, but wicked or mad: & need restraining or suppressing. It is a terrible and dangerous arrogance to believe that you alone are right: have a magical eye which sees the truth: & that others cannot be right if they disagree.” (cited in Hardy, 2001, para. 1)
Yet, some students at Middlebury explicitly reject the rationalist views of Mill, Stanovich, Berlin, West, George, and others. They reject the hegemony of the “rational thought-based perspective” in favor of a “lived experiences” perspective, which they argue has greater validity than rational argument: We contend that experiences and emotions are valid ways to see the world, and that the hegemony of rational thought-based perspective often found in a university setting limit our collective creativity, health, and potential” (Brockelman et al., 2017, para. 8). The enjoinder to listen to various sides’ arguments is inimical to those whose “real, felt experiences” lead them to dismiss those who showed up at Murray’s lecture hoping to hear his views. Protestors’ invocation of emotions over reasoned argument (“the hegemony of rational thought-based perspective”) is troubling not because emotional arguments are easily refuted but for precisely the opposite reason—no one can refute someone’s feelings. If all agree that emotions should trump reasoned arguments, everyone can invoke their own “felt emotional” experience, leaving a battle between sets of feelings, with each side recruiting arguments that affirm their feelings and minimizing those that run counter. This represents a form of myside bias (Stanovich et al., 2013) criticized by scholars at least since the Enlightenment:
The human understanding, when it has once adopted an opinion, draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, either neglects or despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects. (Francis Bacon, as cited by Nisbett & Ross, 1980, p. 167)
Great universities have seen themselves as bulwarks against arguments based on confirmatory biases and a retreat to emotions, a point recently made by the University of Chicago’s president, Robert Zimmer (2016):
Universities cannot be viewed as a sanctuary for comfort but rather as a crucible for confronting ideas and thereby learning to make informed judgments. . . . Having one’s assumptions challenged and experiencing the discomfort that sometimes accompanies this process are intrinsic parts of an excellent education. Only then will students develop the skills necessary to build their own futures and contribute to society. (para. 10)
Zimmer’s letter followed one by John Ellison (2016), dean of students at the University of Chicago:
Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not. . . cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own. (para. 3)
Recently, Lilienfeld (2017) provided a compelling critique of safe spaces and trigger warnings, noting the lack of scientific support for the concept of microaggressions. He argues that it fails on all five dimensions required (e.g., the dimension in which research does not support the clinical claims made by proponents).

The oeuvre review

Do we need to examine the full corpus of a speaker’s past writings to unearth undesirable instances—even if they are unrelated to the invitation and made long ago? What if the undesirable statement was subsequently recanted and an apology issued, such as Keith Ellison’s endorsement of Louis Farrakhan 20 years ago? What if it is unrelated to the current invitation? To make this point concrete, suppose a college flying club in the period after World War II wanted to hear Charles Lindbergh talk about the challenges he faced while making the first solo transatlantic flight. Should his Nazi sympathies preclude the flying club from hearing him talk about the first transatlantic flight? Reasonable people can disagree. Should the biologist Steven Rose’s statements calling for boycott, divestment. and sanctions against Israel exclude him from speaking about his research? Recently, the Nobelist James Watson, the codiscoverer of the double-helix structure of DNA, offered to give a narrowly focused talk on his cancer research at the University of Illinois Institute for Genomic Biology. Watson had a history of making racist and sexist statements, which he has disavowed and for which he has apologized.4 When some faculty outside the Institute raised concerns about his discredited views, plans for his talk on cancer research were cancelled. The Institute’s director wrote the following:
We tried to consider this very carefully in going forward, and different perspectives on the possibilities of him giving a science-based lecture. With respect to his past, the email that I sent out stated very clearly that we didn’t condone any of his past comments, racist comments and sexist comments. And we noted that he had apologized and thought about all those very carefully. (“Editorial: The U. of I. shuns,” 2017, para. 6)
Such examples raise the question of whether there should be a litmus test: Any speaker who in the past has made controversial statements should be excluded from speaking about unrelated matters. Granted that inviting people with odious views to speak about an unrelated topic can still increase their stature and possibly recruit acolytes to their side, it also provides an opportunity to reevaluate their stance and judge the sincerity of their apology, as was likely done with speakers such as Congressman Keith Ellison. It also informs audiences about their research on unrelated issues that may be of great interest. Although in recent years the banning of speakers has occurred most frequently in the case of controversial conservative speakers (see footnote 3), occasionally conservative audiences have shouted down progressive speakers, as was done at Whittier College, where audience members prevented a speaker who sued the Trump administration over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy from finishing his Q&A (Steinbaugh, 2017), and conservatives issued death threats to former Drexel University professor George Ciccariello-Maher (2017), requiring him to teach his class remotely and eventually to resign. The Cato survey reveals many topics for which conservatives ban liberal speakers who criticize police, burn the American flag, criticize Christianity, and so forth. Today, however, more right-wing speech is shut down than left-wing speech.

Moving Forward: Two Principles and Several Corollaries

The following principles and corollaries are starting points for campus discussions. Students, faculty, and administrators need to be aware of the complexities involved in inviting and cancelling talks as they work toward a consensual understanding of the rights and obligations of aspiring to an inclusive, welcoming community while simultaneously defending freedom of expression. This will require a consideration not only of these two aims but also of public safety and financial issues that some campus administrators have invoked to prevent White nationalist Richard Spencer and provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking. Safety is a legitimate issue, of course. In a statement following the cancellation of a speech by Heather MacDonald, author of The War on Cops, Claremont McKenna College President Hiram Chodosh (2017) said these words:
Based on the judgment of the Claremont Police Department, we jointly concluded that any forced interventions or arrests would have created unsafe conditions for students, faculty, staff, and guests, I take full responsibility for the decision to err on the side of these overriding safety considerations. (para. 2)
This is a legitimate consideration but it must not be used as a cover for political motivations.

Principle 1: There is really no alternative to free and open speech

Almost any speech act is offensive to some group: talks on abortion, gay marriage, affirmative action, sex differences in spatial ability, Black Lives Matter (BLM), the origin of the universe, immigrants, fetal stem cells, drilling in the Artic, White privilege, and so forth, offend the moral sensibilities of some groups and can be sources of genuine stress and discomfort. Some advocates of safe spaces regard the discussion of such topics as forms of violence to be banned. Because almost anything can be offensive and cause stress to someone, the least tolerant individuals will get to decide what speech is permitted on campuses, and it will fall to the government to decide what speech is permitted off campus. It did not work out well in the past when the government banned expression of political views; there were many instances in which the banning of speeches and pamphlets is, in hindsight, embarrassing and clearly on the wrong side of civil-rights history (Pope, 2010). There is simply no better alternative than to allow those with unpopular views to express them and to allow those wishing to hear them to do so. Forbidding expressions that cause stress to some group becomes a slippery slope. In Rodriguez v. Maricopa County Community College (2010), a case involving a teacher’s posting of contentious ethnic statements on a web site maintained by the community college district,5 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit opined that “Intellectual advancement has traditionally progressed through discord and dissent, as a diversity of views ensures that ideas survive because they are correct, not because they are popular. Forbidding unpopular expressions is self-defeating.” The Chief Judge wrote that the right to offend and even shock is at the heart of the First Amendment, a right inherent on government-supported campuses:
Intellectual advancement has traditionally progressed through discord and dissent, as a diversity of views ensures that ideas survive because they are correct, not because they are popular. Colleges and universities—sheltered from the currents of popular opinion by tradition, geography, tenure and monetary endowments—have historically fostered that exchange. But that role in our society will not survive if certain points of view may be declared beyond the pale. (Rodriguez v. Maricopa County Community College, 2010, p. 7264)
This principle, which essentially amounts to the assertion that there is no satisfactory alternative to free speech, is superordinate to the following corollaries. These corollaries expand the interlocking logic of this principle. We either have to fundamentally change the university as we know it, or we have to adhere to this principle. “Only those so self-deluded as to think their own judgment is infallible would prohibit others from being exposed to divergent views” (John Stuart Mill, as cited by Flynn, 2009, p. 146).

Corollary A: Psychological science argues for humility

Many scholars have endorsed the view that a desirable consequence of education is modesty with respect to our opinions, and openness to the views of those with whom we disagree. There is a solid empirical basis in psychological science that supports this view. Decades of psychological research underscores the cognitive and motivational biases that affect people’s decisions about others and about the objectivity of their own views. In one of the earliest demonstrations, Lord et al. (1979) showed that people detect more support for their beliefs than is objectively warranted, and they see the views of others with whom they disagree as having less support. There have been a number of empirical demonstrations of “bias blind-spots”—the belief that our own judgments are less susceptible to bias than are those of people with whom we disagree (e.g., Pronin, Gilovich, & Ross, 2004). Especially relevant to campus protests, Ehrlinger et al. (2005) have shown that although people believe that their personal affiliation with an issue or cause is a source of enlightenment, they view a similar personal connection held by those on the other side as a source of bias, not enlightenment. This work on blind-spot bias is relevant to a number of divisions, including politics, Affirmative Action, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and so forth. Public opinion polls reveal the wide chasm among American voters, something that has been true for several decades, according to Gallup data cited by Ehrlinger et al. (2005):
94% of George W. Bush supporters thought the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Florida recount was fair and justifiable, whereas only 17% of Al Gore supporters thought so. By contrast, 66% of Al Gore supporters, but only 31% of George Bush supporters, thought that members of the Supreme Court had been influenced by their “personal political views.” (p. 680)
Jewish and Arab students differ significantly in their belief that a connection to the Middle East would be a source of bias in the views of the other side but would be a source of enlightenment in their own views (Ehrlinger et al., 2005, Experiment 3), and White and non-White students saw each other’s ethnicity as a source of bias but saw their own ethnicity as a source of insight.
Research has also revealed the pitfalls of naive realism. Gilovich and Ross (2016) review studies that uncover “the human tendency to believe that we see the world around us objectively, and that people who disagree with us must be uninformed, irrational, or biased” (p. 17). Naive realism can be a seductive and compelling impression that our side uniquely sees the world as it really is, and that our opponents’ view is subjective and flawed. We must inculcate greater modesty in students, starting by acquainting them with research on naive realism.
Numerous psychological findings demonstrate that it is not only that our biases lead us to interpret our perceptions differently—we actually perceive different things when we view the identical situation. Consider the example of people viewing a video of a protest: Those who were told it was an antiabortion demonstration “saw” different behaviors by demonstrators and police than did those who were told it was a protest against the U.S. military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy (Kahan, Hoffman, Braman, Evans, & Rachlinski, 2012). Likewise, beliefs about the reality of global warming affect perceptions of temperatures (Howe & Leiserowitz, 2013). Our faculty survey supports this by showing that those who were told the text was by Charles Murray perceived it to be more conservative than did their author-blinded colleagues. Psychological research on this point provides a firm foundation to inform campus discussions. Updating of ideas and processing new arguments in light of new evidence must be independent of one’s prior knowledge or degree of belief; normative models of rationality posit a two-step updating process, starting with openness to belief-relevant evidence and then the integration of the new evidence with the prior knowledge or belief to yield an updated decision. In such normative models, it is important that the gathering and weighting of new information is independent of one’s prior judgment (Taber & Lodge, 2006). Yet this independence is lacking among proponents with extremist views (Ehrlinger et al., 2005; Fernbach et al., 2013; Lord et al., 1979). Automatic affective processes sustain partisan beliefs by focusing on selective information, sometimes overshadowing the drive to be accurate (Taber & Lodge, 2006). Informing students about such seductively satisfying tendencies would go a long way toward encouraging them to self-challenge their pet beliefs.
This corollary means that campus speech codes should explicitly state the expectation to listen respectfully to those with whom we disagree, to familiarize ourselves with the evidence they rely on, and to not impede others from hearing them. The alternative to this principle is an atmosphere in which those who hold unpopular positions are unwilling or unpermitted to share their evidence—the academic equivalent of unilateral disarmament. A philosophical basis underpins this principle: A free and open discourse with those who harbor divergent opinions aids us in self-evaluation and revision of our evidentiary base and helps minimize confirmation bias that depends only on supporting evidence. John Stuart Mill’s argument lies at the heart of this argument: Exposure to divergent views presents the opportunity to challenge our deeply held beliefs and possibly update our opinion with more evidence-based views. On his blog, Robert Reich, a prominent liberal thinker and U.S. Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton, wrote that his employer, the University of California, Berkeley, made a “grave mistake” in canceling Ann Coulter’s talk: “How can students understand the vapidity of Coulter’s arguments without being allowed to hear her make them, and question her about them?” (Reich, 2017). As the 100 Middlebury faculty asserted in their criticism of events of March 2, “Only through the contest of clashing viewpoints do we have any hope of replacing mere opinion with knowledge” (Parini et al., 2017, para. 3).

Corollary B: Marketplace of ideas

Alongside the en-dorsement of humility about our positions, a free-flowing marketplace of ideas helps members of the campus community sift valid from invalid arguments. Of course, some see this differently; they argue that the freedom to express hateful speech needs to be tightly controlled, lest it lead to damaging social consequences. For example, when the topic is race and IQ, it has been claimed that “there is no valid knowledge to be found in this area at all” (Rose, 2009, p. 147; cf. Ceci & Williams, 2009). Moreover, campus goals to promote inclusion and diversity are incompatible with racist positions. On the other hand, there have always been scholars who defend Murray’s The Bell Curve as responsible science. In addition to both Haier’s (2017) and Winegard & Winegard’s (2017) recent essays in the Quillette, Malcolm Browne’s (1994) lengthy and largely positive review of The Bell Curve in the New York Times, and Sullivan’s (2017) recent essay, others also were laudatory (see the Bell Curve Debate, edited by Jacoby & Glauberman, 1995). FAIR, the media watchdog that summarized the mostly negative reviews, also listed positive reviews (Naureckas, 1995). The positive reviewers do not accept Rose’s claim that “there is no valid knowledge to be found in this area at all”; they continue to provide refutations (Winegard & Winegard, 2018).
However, regardless of how one views his 1994 book, the talk Murray planned to give at Middlebury was unrelated to it. As seen in the surveys we conducted, it was neither hate speech or even strongly conservative speech. Granted no one wants to unnecessarily offend others or create a noninclusive climate on campus, but if scholars believe something is unsettled science and new findings continue to be published (e.g., Flynn’s demonstration that racial differences narrowed during the 1980s), then what is the alternative to permitting a proponent to present the argument? Surely the answer is not unilateral disarmament by members on one side and suppressing research they believe refutes the popular view. It took the former Soviet Union a generation to overcome the disastrous effects of one-party genetics when it was deemed unacceptable to challenge Lysenko’s views (Ceci & Williams, 2009). As ardent critics of The Bell Curve (Ceci, 1996), we do not want to win the debate and proselytize others by muzzling opponents. We want to scrutinize and respond to the evidence they believe supports their position, rather than force it underground, where it cannot be publicly contested. Being open to counterevidence and viewpoint diversity helps sharpen everyone’s thinking, a point that the philosopher James Flynn, Arthur Jensen’s most effective critic, has made in numerous writings:
As the philosopher John Stuart Mill points out, when you assert that a topic is not to be debated, you are foreclosing not some narrow statement of opinion on that topic, but the whole spiralling universe of discourse that it may inspire. Mill thought that only someone so self-deluded as to think his own judgement was infallible could wish to circumscribe an unpredictable future in this way. (Flynn, 2009, p. 146)
Organizations such as Common Ground ( and Intelligence2 ( provide models of what can be done: They arrange passionate but civil debates, with advocates from opposing sides of a controversial issue, often in front of student bodies, as was done last year at Yale (on free speech on campus) and at Middlebury College when former U.S. Representative Barney Frank (D-MA) and former White House Chief of Staff and Governor John Sununu (R-NH) debated economic opportunity in the Trump presidency (Common Ground, 2017). Campus administrators could emulate Common Ground and Intelligence2 regarding procedures for passionate yet respectful debates (for example, see Exposing students to such viewpoint diversity could help enculturate them into a community in which free speech and inclusiveness coexist. Fernbach et al. (2013) showed that asking people who harbor extreme political attitudes on national policies to explain these policies in detail undermined their own “illusion of explanatory depth,” resulting in attitudes that were more moderate, and also narrowed the gap with their opponents’ attitudes. Thus, there is an empirical rationale for implementing such a strategy on campuses.

Principle 2: College experiences should involve challenging our beliefs even when those experiences go beyond our comfort level

Free discourse that includes multiple sides of an issue does not always happen on college campuses, and each side of the political aisle has been implicated in attempts to block the other—although, as we have noted, it is mainly leftist groups that have blocked conservative speakers in recent years. However, the absence of equal opportunity to present counterarguments should not be invoked as a justification for uncivil acts, including preventing others from being exposed to a nonpreferred side’s position. Campus policies should make clear that our discomfort with an argument does not itself constitute violence against historically marginalized groups. This should be conveyed to entering students in the same way as policies surrounding other important issues (e.g., alcohol, sexual violence, plagiarism). College experience is not designed to keep us within our personal comfort zone nor to immunize our beliefs from disconfirmation. Indeed, colleges owe it to their students to challenge their views by considering opposing viewpoints, even identity-shattering ones, and to force us to grapple with disconfirmatory evidence. There were times in the past when today’s dominant views were considered outrageous and offensive to segments of the campus community (e.g., attempts in the 1970s and 1980s to prevent Barney Frank from speaking against homophobia because doing so made religious members of audiences uncomfortable). Because of the marketplace of opinions, one side’s argument came to be viewed as more compelling—an outcome that would not have happened if offensive positions were not permitted to be heard. Someone who has not fallen into the idolatry of worshiping his or her own opinions will want to listen to people who see things differently in order to learn what considerations—evidence, reasons, arguments—have merit. Exposure to controversial points of view does not constitute violence.

Corollary A: No campus group has the right to determine for the entire community what can be discussed

As a corollary of Principle 2, a core goal of a good education should be to instill humility when it comes to the correctness of our opinions. This does not mean all opinions are equally valid. But it does mean that we need humility in presuming the correctness of our own opinions. We should never presume that the other side is so wrong as to be unworthy of being heard. This is why free discussion is so vitally important on a college campus. In the marketplace of ideas, although one position may become more persuasive over time, it is not always apparent beforehand which one it will be. The history of ideas is littered with the carcasses of once-cherished beliefs that were replaced as a result of free and open discourse (Pinker, 2015). The recent renaissance of research on Lamarckian modes of genetic transmission illustrates the value of this approach. Although they were broadly dismissed years ago, today Lamarck’s ideas are experiencing a resurgence and influencing important science. As Flynn has demonstrated, permitting Arthur Jensen’s evidence to be openly presented allowed Flynn to rebut it, leading Flynn (and others) to insights that would not have been possible if Jensen’s ideas had been forced underground. Even hurtful expressions are constitutionally protected speech as long as they are not imminently threatening. Once we venture down the slippery path to banning speech that makes us uncomfortable, others can use the same justification to ban speech they find personally upsetting, such as proabortion talks; BLM rallies; boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) lectures; and pro-gay-marriage arguments. If the left wing argues on moral grounds that it has an obligation to prevent right wingers from speaking, they should imagine reverse situations: for example, fascists breaking up union meetings or right-wing members of the audience shouting down BLM and Occupy organizers on the grounds that their speech causes extreme discomfort.
Students have the intelligence to evaluate evidence and no one has the right to decide for them what evidence they are permitted to evaluate. To argue otherwise is to ignore the challenges faced by free speech advocates in the mid-1960s, who were often opposed by conservative campus administrators who argued that students were too gullible to be exposed to threatening ideas. As noted, former Representative Barney Frank described his experience championing gay rights in the early 1970s and how he was prevented from presenting his message because people claimed it made straight audiences uncomfortable.

Corollary B: Protestors also have a right to be heard

Nothing stated here is intended to muzzle the voice of protestors; far from it. They have the right to challenge the views of speakers as long as they do not deny the right of others to listen to those speakers. Likewise, no campus group has the right to behave as the arbiter of what views are worthy or unworthy of being entertained by members of the entire campus community. We agree with the 100 Middlebury faculty (Parini et al., 2017): A protest that prevents campus speakers from communicating with their audience is a coercive act. Whenever campus dissent can reasonably be expected, the administration has a responsibility to provide a means for those who disagree to express their criticism. Thus, the right to hear a view does not negate the right of critics to make their criticisms known. Those tasked with organizing campus events that carry the implied endorsement of the college’s administration (e.g., in which the president of the college introduces the speaker or an academic department is a cosponsor) have a duty to provide a venue for critics to express their views. This can take myriad forms, such as a rebuttal argument by a critic on the same platform, Q&A from the floor, or written or live stream counterarguments. Campus events organized by individuals or by student clubs not acting in an institutional role carry a reduced responsibility to provide an opportunity for critics. Thus, no one should construe this principle as requiring, say, a student organization that supports Planned Parenthood to arrange for an antichoice opponent to share the podium. But some opportunity for opponents’ voices should be available, such as during Q&A, provided it does not infringe on the audience’s right to hear the speaker. The core of this principle is that the remedy for hate speech is not the banning of speech but rather the encouragement of more speech. Specifically, in this case, the remedy is to provide the opportunity to express contrary arguments.

What Can Colleges and Universities Do?

In the Cato Institute survey (Ekins, 2017) of Americans with university experience, 66% reported that colleges are not doing enough to teach students about the value of free speech. This view is shared by 51% of current college and graduate students. Events such as the protests across the United States and Canada suggest that activities might be introduced, either during the orientation period for new students or in seminars. These activities are based on psychological research on avoiding confirmatory bias (Nickerson, 1998), particularly the subclass of myside bias, in which people generate evidence or test hypotheses that favor their own side (Baron, 1995) or engage in closed-minded thinking (Baron, 2008), selective perception (Hastorf & Cantril, 1954), motivated skepticism (Taber & Lodge, 2006), illusion of understanding (Fernbach et al., 2013), blind-spot bias (Ehrlinger et al., 2005), and naive realism, the latter tendency to believe that what we see is an accurate reflection of what is really “out there.” In contrast, this same psychological research shows that we perceive political opponents to be afflicted by their own bias from seeing things the same way (e.g., Gilovich & Ross, 2016; Kahan et al., 2012; Taber & Lodge, 2006; Tavris & Aronson, 2007). This research suggests a number of activities to counter naive realism. Gilovich and Ross (2016) in particular show the net influence of naive realism on perceptions of validity of opposing political views: The greater the disagreement with another’s viewpoint, the greater the likelihood we regard it as biased perception.
Colleges might begin by inculcating a culture on campus in which students are expected to become informed about controversial speakers’ views, either by listening to their arguments or reading their positions. As noted, many of the protestors admitted to not having read any of Murray’s work, relying instead on hearsay and a Wikipedia summary in which it was reported that the SPLC labeled his 1994 book the work of a White nationalist. One exercise could be to examine the quotes used by the SPLC to support its White nationalist judgment and weigh them against Murray’s (2017) response to determine whether they were taken out of context, as some have claimed (Liberty Counsel, 2017). Or whether countervailing statements that exculpate him were ignored versus justifying a judgment that he is a White nationalist. Students could be divided into two groups, one asked to evaluate whether a German-built car with a poor safety record should be banned from U.S. highways and the other asked the identical question about an American-built car. Research on myside bias reveals large differences in favor of the American car (Stanovich et al., 2013), which provides a starting point to discuss partisan reasoning biases. Such exercises are valuable in a variety of classes that call on similar analytic skills. (It also would seem relevant to current concerns related to the uncritical acceptance of fake news.) Likewise, the exercises created to document the Dunning-Kruger effect (Dunning, Johnson, Ehrlinger, & Kruger, 2003; Kruger & Dunning, 1999)—the failure to appreciate one’s own incompetence—could be revelatory. It should underscore the need for students to acquaint themselves with opponents’ evidence and the limits of their own.
Role-playing exercises, in which supporters of each side are asked to switch sides, can also be valuable. Debate team veterans know this because they are given a topic and instructed to prepare both pro and con positions; they are not told which side they will defend until shortly before the start of the debate. Similar role-playing exercises could be woven into controversial seminars in the social sciences and humanities and even in some natural sciences (e.g., the role of humans in climate change, the safety of GMOs, the theory of evolution/origin of the universe, the ethics of fetal stem cell therapies, drilling in the Arctic Refuge, CRISPR gene editing). Researching multiple sides of a contentious argument can help prevent ideological groupthink. It can even engender empathy for others and help routinize attempts to falsify one’s pet theory and supplement it with efforts to disconfirm personal bias. Research on the “illusion of understanding” shows that requiring students to explain their views in detail moderates extremist attitudes and narrows gaps between opposing political groups (see Experiments 1 and 2 in Fernbach et al., 2013). Thus, activity that involves in-depth analysis of each side’s claims can moderate extremist views that are caused by a failure to understand underlying mechanisms. Although it may not always be desirable to moderate one’s views, especially when opposing dangerous positions, the driver in reducing extremism is making people aware of their misunderstanding of underlying mechanisms, which is essential to validate one’s views. Encouraging tolerance of speakers with views that are considered odious by some could serve to dilute the homogeneous clusters of online users that result from their near-exclusive exposure to a limited range of sociopolitical content.
During freshman orientation at our university, students are informed about codes of conduct related to plagiarism, intoxication, sexual harassment, and so forth. They must pass online tests based on curricula (e.g., These are important issues, and entering students must demonstrate that they have read and understood these codes. However, freshmen are not encouraged to think about issues related to free expression, hate speech, what constitutes “evidence,” or what is and is not protected expression by campus speech codes as well as by the U.S. Constitution. For example, does the online assertion that someone is a White nationalist by a respected organization represent proof? What would constitute compelling evidence? And if such evidence is provided, as in the case of the self-avowed White nationalist Richard Spencer, should it be grounds for preventing the individual from speaking, given that such speech is likely to make members of the campus community uncomfortable and run counter to the goals of inclusiveness and diversity? At what point do public institutions have a responsibility to ensure the safety of such speakers and those who come to hear them, rather than default to banning them on grounds that their talks may result in violence or entail large costs to arrange security? In 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the issue of security costs in Forsyth County v. Nationalist Movement, ruling that controversial speakers cannot be charged unreasonably high security fees because doing so potentially constitutes a way to restrict speech on the basis of its popularity. Justice Harry A. Blackmun wrote for the Court: “Speech cannot be financially burdened, any more than it can be punished or banned, simply because it might offend a hostile mob” (pp. 134–135). One strategy is for hosts of speaking events to submit their projected safety costs, and administrators could have a lottery to rank-order events, thus not penalizing one viewpoint over another. Universities are not free to limit speech by its cost, because that will lead to viewpoint censorship. A public university should decide in advance how much it will spend, and all talks with nonroutine costs go into a lottery for rank ordering. Then the talks could be approved in that order until the money runs out.
One exercise for such training would be to have students discuss the Cato Institute’s campus survey of topics some regard as hate speech. The data cut across both sides of the political spectrum (see also the “balanced ideological antipathy model,” Crawford, Malinas, & Furman, 2015). For example, 40% of Americans with university experience believe that a speaker who says that, on average, men are better than women at math should not be permitted to speak on campus; 51% would ban a speaker who says all White people are racists; 49% would ban speakers who say Christians are backward and brainwashed; 49% would ban speakers who criticize and disrespect police; 48% would ban a speaker who says the average IQ of Whites and Asians is higher than that of African Americans; 57% would ban anyone who claims the Holocaust never occurred; and 41% would ban speakers who said illegal immigrants should be deported.
If a group’s simple demand for the cancellation of an event is sufficient to ban it, this will be the end of discussion of all controversial topics, even if substantial fractions of scholars endorse them. Although the media watch group FAIR (Naureckas, 1995) summarized the predominantly negative reactions to The Bell Curve (Herrnstein & Murray, 1994) when it was published 24 years ago, not all were negative (see also Browne, 1994; Haier, 2017; Jacoby & Glauberman, 1995; Winegard & Winegard, 2017). Currently, the dominant position among researchers supports some role for genes in the development of intelligence (e.g., Sniekers et al., 2017), although the majority of scholars appear to reject the role of genes in producing racial differences in intelligence (Neisser et al., 1996). Not every opinion is underpinned by equally rigorous science, but no group should have the audacity to claim that it alone possesses the valid view and that all who disagree with it are wrong.
Thus, campuses might use freshman orientation to introduce discussions about the meaning of “evidence” and how personal biases affect our notion of evidence (Kohler, 1993), especially in the context of free speech. Students could be exposed to readings and discussions of free and hateful speech that are designed specifically to “promote an inclusive learning environment but in a way that also respects the unfettered expression of ideas on campus” (e.g., Chemerinsky & Gillman, 2017, p. xi), and asked to prepare arguments for both sides. Terms such as “free speech” and “hate speech” tend to be abstractions for students and are invoked inappropriately, such as when equating banning Murray’s talk with standing up to Hitler, Pol Pot, or Stalin. It might be illuminating for students to listen to his live stream and answer the question Murray asked: What is so dangerous that they will not permit their classmates to hear it? As seen from our MTurk survey, they will be hard-pressed to claim his remarks at Middlebury were racist, sexist, or White nationalist, despite such claims about The Bell Curve. And if protestors’ actions are in response to The Bell Curve, they should state this explicitly and address the ramifications of banning speech on the basis of historical writings that are unrelated to the invitation.
Students might be challenged to think of reversals in which they have to defend silencing someone they admire. Gilovich and Ross (2016) describe some thought experiments that involve naive realism in opposing political positions (p. 14). Students could also benefit from reading Stanovich’s (2017) counterargument to those who assume the other side is wrong or racist. A little humility can go a long way. “Judge Learned Hand, quoting Oliver Cromwell, said that every courthouse and public building should have inscribed above its entrance, ‘Consider that ye may be wrong’” (as cited by Kendrick, 2017, para. 8). The contemporary words of George and West (2017) put it this way:
None of us is infallible. Whether you are a person of the left, the right, or the center, there are reasonable people of goodwill who do not share your fundamental convictions. This does not mean that all opinions are equally valid or that all speakers are equally worth listening to. It certainly does not mean that there is no truth to be discovered. Nor does it mean that you are necessarily wrong. But they are not necessarily wrong either. . . . [One] will want to listen to people who see things differently in order to learn what considerations—evidence, reasons, arguments—led them to a place different from where one happens, at least for now, to find oneself. (para. 3)
Finally, students could be assigned essays that take opposite sides in the free speech debate; Intelligence2 (Intelligence2 USA Debates, 2017) is an excellent example of debating whether free speech is threatened on campuses, with writer/lawyer Wendy Kaminer and Columbia’s John McWhorter on the affirmative versus Penn’s Shaun Harper and Yale’s Jason Stanley on the negative. Pinker’s (2015) op-ed in the Boston Globe is another worthy example. In it, he puts forward three reasons for insisting on free speech, notwithstanding the legal exclusions for defamation, national security, child pornography, and yelling fire in a theater. Two of his reasons are pertinent to protests on campuses:
Everything we know about the world—the age of our civilization, species, planet, and universe; the stuff we’re made of; the laws that govern matter and energy; the workings of the body and brain—came as insults to the sacred dogma of the day. We now know that the beloved convictions of every time and culture may be decisively falsified, doubtless including some we hold today. A third reason that free speech is foundational to human flourishing is that it is essential to democracy and a bulwark against tyranny. How did the monstrous regimes of the 20th century gain and hold power? The answer is that groups of armed fanatics silenced their critics and adversaries. (The 1933 election that gave the Nazis a plurality was preceded by years of intimidation, murder, and violent mayhem.) And once in power, the totalitarians criminalized any criticism of the regime. (paras. 8–9)
In conclusion, psychology has a venerable research tradition that demonstrates the folly of naive realism, confirmatory bias, motivated skepticism, blind-spot biases, illusions of understanding, and selective perception. Potential interventions can be deduced from psychological findings, and legal scholars such as Chemerinsky and Gillman (2017) have supplied a framework within which the campus community can work toward consensual practices, even if this does not mean achieving consensual viewpoints.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors alone.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The author(s) declared that there were no conflicts of interest with respect to the authorship or the publication of this article.


We requested feedback on this manuscript from colleagues on both ends of the political spectrum. A conservative faculty member wrote the following, which underscores the claim that we perceive events through lenses that often differ dramatically:
I think it’s worth pointing out the Orwellianness of demands for “inclusiveness.” Campuses bend over backwards to be inclusive *toward people the protestors care about*. Otherwise, they go out of their way to make you feel like you *don’t* belong. When they say, “You’re threatening our inclusivity,” what they really mean is “You’re challenging our lack of inclusivity—and we won’t let you get away with it.
This was Claremont McKenna’s official statement:
Our students must master the skills of respectful dialogue across all barriers. Our community must protect the right to learn from others, especially those with whom we strongly disagree. And Claremont McKenna College must take every step necessary to uphold these vital commitments. (“Claremont McKenna College completes,” 2017, para. 13)
This was met with criticism:
Nana Gyamfi, a lawyer with the group Justice Warriors for Black Lives, has been advising the students who faced charges. She called the college’s actions “completely outrageous” and said that the students were being punished by the college “to intimidate and to bully” them. She said that the protest was warranted because of Mac Donald’s views. “This particular person is a person who has expressed her antagonism toward Black Lives Matter” and “has been giving excuses for extrajudicial killings of black people,” she said. Gyamfi said that Mac Donald’s free speech was not limited in any way, in that she was able to give her talk online. What free speech rights did the students prevent? Did they jump up in her speech? Did they grab her and pull her aside? She could talk all day long. Asked about the students who wanted to hear Mac Donald, Gyamfi said that “there is no right to hear someone speak.” The real issue, Gyamfi said, is that Claremont McKenna is not committed to diversity. “They need to understand what it means to be diverse, that it’s not about having a quota of marginalized people to say ‘we have black people’ and ‘we have brown people.’” Real diversity is about “creating safe spaces” where students feel respected. She said that Claremont McKenna’s leaders should enroll in a course she teaches . . ., called Race, Activism and Emotions . . . to understand why it was wrong to permit Mac Donald to be scheduled to give a lecture on campus. (Jaschik, 2017b, paras. 13–16)
Lest one argue that the academy is a hive of free speech and that both ends of the political spectrum are equally likely to shout down the other side’s speakers (Ciccariello-Maher, 2017; Glaude, 2017), it appears from a CNN report that in the past 2 decades, the risk is greater for speakers on the right to be cancelled than ones on the left:
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education maintains an incomprehensive database of more than 300 attempts to disinvite campus speakers since 2000. About three-quarters of the attempts involved pressure from liberals. Evolution and Israel are among the most controversial topics. But more often the disinvitation attempt stems from disagreements over views on immigration, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation or abortion. (McLaughlin, 2017, paras. 28 and 29)
Data from surveys and experimental studies suggests the current situation is lopsidedly liberal/progressive with both implicit and explicit costs associated with expressing conservative views. Consider that Inbar and Lammers (2012) reported that most social psychologists in their survey (85% of whom self-described as liberal) explicitly acknowledged that they would discriminate against hiring conservatives and in evaluating their journal and grant submissions: “If two job candidates with equal qualifications were to apply for an opening in your department, and you knew that one was politically quite conservative, do you think you would be inclined to vote for the more liberal one?” Of the 237 liberals who responded, only 42 (18%) indicated “not at all,” whereas 82% indicated they would be at least mildly biased against a conservative candidate, and 43% chose the midpoint—“somewhat”—or higher. In contrast, 67% of moderates and 83% of conservatives indicated “not at all.” Inbar and Lammers found similar asymmetries for grant reviews and journal reviews, and they found that when reviewing a grant, 82% of liberals admitted at least a mild bias against conservatives, and 27% indicated “somewhat” or higher bias; and when reviewing a paper, 78% indicated at least mild bias against conservatives, and 21% indicated “somewhat” or higher bias; and when inviting participants to a symposium, 56% of liberals indicated at least mild bias against inviting conservatives, and 15% indicated “somewhat” or higher bias. One might suspect these revelations of bias are underestimates, given the stigma associated with admitting them. Such findings led Duarte et al. (2015) to conclude the following:
The combination of basic research demonstrating high degrees of hostility towards opposing partisans, the field studies demonstrating discrimination against research projects that are unflattering to liberals and their views, and survey results of self-reported willingness to engage in political discrimination all point to the same conclusion: Political discrimination is a reality in social psychology. Conservative graduate students and assistant professors are behaving rationally when they keep their political identities hidden, and when they avoid voicing the dissenting opinions that could be of such great benefit to the field. Moderate and libertarian students may be suffering the same fate. (p. 11)
On a general level, it is worth considering whether the left-leaning bias of psychological scientists might result in biased scientific products as opposed to nonbiased concepts (Duarte et al., 2015). As a reviewer asked, “Is there a leftist bias—with terms like ‘right wing authoritarianism’ but not ‘left wing authoritarianism’ despite the regimes of Mao, Fidel, Pol Pot, Stalin and so on?”
Watson’s most notorious comment was made in 2007, when he told the Sunday Times of London that he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours—whereas all the testing says not really” (Hunt-Grubbe, 2007, para. 35). In response to the fall-out from this statement, Watson apologized, saying he did not mean to characterize Africans as genetically inferior but that he was referring to geographically separated populations evolving differently. Soon thereafter he was asked to resign his scientific post.
Mathematics professor Walter Kehowski posted three racially charged emails on a listserv maintained by his community college. His defense of Columbus Day and Western civilization more generally was offensive to some employees: “YES! Today’s Columbus Day! It’s time to acknowledge and celebrate the superiority of Western Civilization” (Rodriguez v. Maricopa County Community College, 2010, p. 7259). He offered excerpts from articles, including a quote from Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., saying that “democracy, human rights and cultural freedom” are “European ideas.” The Court’s decision put it this way:
the objection to Kehowski’s speech is based entirely on his point of view, and it is axiomatic that the government may not silence speech because the ideas it promotes are thought to be offensive. See Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444, 448-49 (1969); Saxe v. State Coll. Area Sch. Dist., 240 F.3d 200, 204 (3d Cir. 2001); DeAngelis v. El Paso Mun. Police Officers Ass’n, 51 F.3d 591, 596-97 (5th Cir. 1995). “There is no categorical ‘harassment exception’ to the First Amendment’s free speech clause.” Saxe, 240 F.3d at 204; see also United States v. Stevens, No. 08-769, slip op. at 7 (U.S. April 20, 2010) (“The First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech does not extend only to categories of speech that survive an ad hoc balancing of relative social costs and benefits.”) Indeed, precisely because Kehowski’s ideas fall outside the mainstream, his words sparked intense debate: Colleagues emailed responses, and Kehowski replied; some voiced opinions in the editorial pages of the local paper; the administration issued a press release; and, in the best tradition of higher learning, students protested. The Constitution embraces such a heated exchange of views, even (perhaps especially) when they concern sensitive topics like race, where the risk of conflict and insult is high. See R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, 505 U.S. 377, 391 (1992). Without the right to stand against society’s most strongly-held convictions, the marketplace of ideas would decline into a boutique of the banal, as the urge to censor is greatest where debate is most disquieting and orthodoxy most entrenched. See, e.g., Gitlow v. New York, 268 U.S. 652, 667 (1925); id. at 673 (Holmes, J., dissenting). (Rodriguez v. Maricopa County Community College, 2010, pp. 7263–7264)


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Article first published online: May 2, 2018
Issue published: May 2018


  1. free speech
  2. hate speech
  3. selective perception
  4. naive realism
  5. myside bias
  6. motivated skepticism
  7. blind-spot bias
  8. groupthink
  9. confirmation bias

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Issue published: May 2018
Published online: May 2, 2018
PubMed: 29716456



Stephen J. Ceci
Department of Human Development, Cornell University
Wendy M. Williams
Department of Human Development, Cornell University


Stephen J. Ceci, G84 Martha Van Rensselaer Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853 E-mail: [email protected]

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