campus speech codes and college student voting: or, how to make an empirical claim in the Times with no evidence

Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, is an opponent of campus speech codes. In today’s New York Times, he argues that these codes “discourage civic engagement” among college students. Lukianoff is entitled to his opinion of “stringent speech codes.” But his op-ed makes an empirical claim–that speech codes reduce students’ voter turnout–with a breathtaking lack of evidence that makes me wonder why the Times accepted his piece.

Lukianoff opens with this claim: “Despite high youth voter turnout in 2008 — 48.5 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds cast ballots that year — levels are expected to return to usual lows this year, and with that the usual hand-wringing about disengagement and apathy among young voters.” The relevant number is actually the turnout rate of currently enrolled college students, which was 59.7% in 2008. As our graph shows, that rate has been quite stable for 40 years, so it is unlikely to “return to usual lows” in 2012.

Further, college students voted at a much higher rate than their non-student contemporaries. That doesn’t disprove Lukianoff’s claim that colleges “do as much to repress free speech as any other institution in young people’s lives.” It could be that colleges repress free speech and voting, but other factors associated with attending college, such as higher socioeconomic status, boost turnout more. To isolate the effects of the speech codes, we should compare colleges that have stringent speech codes to those without. Lukianoff hasn’t done that, and neither have I. We do, however, know that Tufts students voted at around 90% rates in both 2004 and 2008, even though Tufts has a “red” (bad) rating from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Meanwhile, the University of Pennsylvania–a rough peer of Tufts–gets a green rating and has a very similar voter turnout rate as ours: 89.6% in 2008.

CIRCLE is working on a tool that will allow colleges to measure their turnout accurately if they choose to do so. That will make this kind of research much easier and more robust. Meanwhile, the limited available evidence suggests no correlation at all between the presence of a campus speech code and turnout. I wouldn’t try to publish that null claim, because the evidence is too thin, but I don’t see how the Times can publish an article that rests on the contrary assumption when there is no evidence whatsoever for it.

By the way, I have mixed feelings about the speech codes themselves. Free inquiry is a profound value. On the other hand, a central mission of the university is to select and promote high-quality speech. We constantly evaluate and filter speech when we decide whom to hire, admit, and invite to campus, how to grade students’ work, which courses to approve, which groups and events to fund, and which books to buy for the library or print through the university press. In making those judgments, we ought to be guided by J.S. Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville and make sure that we are not suppressing unpopular views that would contribute to the dialogue. At the same time, we are not governments that must recognize almost untrammeled freedom of speech as a human right. Within our communities, we are entitled to balance individual freedom against criteria of quality, properly defined. More on that here.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.