Controversial UW free speech survey finds students afraid to express views in class

By: - February 3, 2023 6:30 am

A panel discusses the results of the UW System free speech survey. (Screenshot | WisEye)

A majority of UW System students surveyed about free speech issues on the state’s campuses said they were scared to express their views on certain issues in class, according to the results of a survey released Wednesday. 

The controversial survey, which had previously been delayed because of initial pushback from faculty and administrators, was sent to more than 80,000 students in November. Nearly 10,500 students responded, a rate of 12.5%. 

The survey asked students their views on self-censorship, viewpoint diversity and freedom of expression on campus. A majority of respondents said they were not at all or only a little likely to listen to opposing viewpoints on topics including COVID-19 vaccines, abortion and transgender issues. 

While 54% of respondents said they were extremely or very comfortable sharing their views on climate change in class, 44% said they weren’t comfortable or only a little comfortable sharing their views on transgender issues. 

Prior to the survey’s release, faculty and staff had expressed concern that the results would be used by Republican politicians to attack the system. But at a news conference Wednesday at UW Oshkosh, System President Jay Rothman said that people shouldn’t be afraid of what the survey found. 

“We can’t be afraid of the truth and what the survey shows us, we want to make sure we get ourselves better,” he said. “It is important that our universities continue to be marketplaces of ideas where divergent opinions can be shared and debated and discussed. I think that, at the end of the day, is a bipartisan issue.” 

While students responded that they often feel they aren’t able to express their viewpoints in class, nearly 60% of respondents said they feel instructors encourage a wide range of viewpoints during discussions. 

At the news conference, Rothman said administrators need to work on making sure students feel they can voice their opinions. 

“We have to acknowledge that some students at our universities simply don’t feel comfortable sharing their views in class or elsewhere on campus,” he said. “We need to create a culture that more openly values free expression — and make sure students understand their rights under the First Amendment.”


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Henry Redman
Henry Redman

Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.