Free speech at BYU? It depends on who is rating it

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A banner on the eastern edge of campus welcomes all to BYU. However, not all students feel welcome to share their opinions here. (Karina Andrew)

A 2020 study on campus free speech ranked BYU as one of the “worst” universities in the country for freedom of speech, but students say the bigger problem is an intense, hyper-partisan political climate that keeps them from speaking freely.

Of the 55 universities ranked in Real Clear Education’s report, BYU came in 49th and was the only university to receive a “Warning” rating — the lowest rating available in the speech code section of the report. According to the report’s methodology, “A warning rating is assigned to a private college or university when its policies clearly and consistently state that it prioritizes other values over a commitment to freedom of speech.”

While BYU embraces free speech as one value among many, the school’s commitment to religious faith has a significant impact on how different people view it. University of Utah law professor and First Amendment expert Jeffrey Hunt said because BYU is a private institution, it is “free to place greater value on a particular set of moral or religious teachings over a commitment to free expression.”

The Real Clear Media Group, which manages Real Clear Education and 15 other brand sectors such as Real Clear Politics, is a moderately right-leaning news and opinion curator with the goal of sifting through the relentless online media barrage and providing readers a comprehensive summary of the most important goings-on. The organization did not respond to the Universe’s request for comment on the rankings that included BYU.

Real Clear Education’s report put the greatest weight on openness and tolerance on the campuses it studied, while also considering self-expression, administrative support for free speech and whether official university policies threatened or supported free speech. 

Data from a Real Clear Education survey said BYU is one of the lowest-ranked universities in the nation for freedom of speech, but no one at the organization was willing to speak with the Daily Universe about the rankings. (Karina Andrew)

According to Real Clear Education’s report, opinions on BYU’s campus speech climate were split down ideological lines. Liberals ranked BYU dead last for free speech, while conservatives ranked the university fourth out of 55. No other university in the study saw such drastic differentiation between political parties.

Anecdotal evidence, however, both from anonymous survey respondents in Real Clear Education’s study and from BYU students who spoke with the Universe, indicates that students all across the political spectrum have felt uncomfortable sharing their views on campus.

BYU student Tanner Muhlestein, a self-identified political moderate, told the Universe he does not always feel particularly comfortable sharing his views, because “people jump on you if you don’t follow liberal sympathies.”

“People are just very vocal about their disagreement, and it’s pretty ubiquitous through any venue of campus,” he said. “If you make a comment in class, you’re guaranteed to get someone to raise their hand and try and push the envelope as far as Church standards are concerned.”

He said the most difficult topics to discuss on campus are issues relating to the LGBTQ community. This is consistent with the Real Clear Education report’s findings, which indicate that “Transgender issues is the topic most frequently identified by students as difficult to have an open and honest conversation about on campus.” 

Since last year’s Honor Code confusion and a recent campus Rainbow Day commemorating the anniversary of the protests that followed, Muhlestein said the intensity of the rhetoric surrounding the issue makes it hard for students to voice support for Church standards, even if their comments aren’t directed toward LGBTQ students in any negative way.

The problem isn’t formal university sanctions on speech, Muhlestein said; rather, it’s an intolerant campus culture.

BYU student Ryan Echols agreed. He said despite the university’s reputation for being conservative, he knows more liberal BYU students than conservative and feels conservative viewpoints are often unfairly reframed as evil or intolerant.

“They say that we don’t want to help people who need help, that we’re hateful, that we don’t care about the environment, etc.,” Echols said in an Instagram message to the Universe. “The truth is that we do, in fact, care about those things, but our solutions are different from theirs.”

Left-leaning BYU students also feel the heat of intolerance on campus. A few even told the Universe they feel people view them as “unrighteous” or “apostate” for holding liberal views.

“I struggle to share my opinion publicly out of fear of being branded a ‘traitor’ to the values of ‘BYU and therefore the church and therefore God,’” wrote one anonymous respondent of Real Clear Education’s survey in the free response portion. “I love BYU and I’m glad I chose to come to a gospel centered environment. But sometimes it feels less like I can deeply explore my relationship with God in a gospel centered environment, and more like a place to be shamed for not fitting a certain cultural mold.”

Real Clear Education said it carefully vetted each survey respondent to ensure they were all enrolled students at the universities for which they answered questions.

BYU student Sophie Whitaker told the Universe while she generally feels comfortable expressing her liberal opinions in classes and other academic settings, it’s more difficult in church or social situations.

“The academic setting lends itself to discourse, as it should, which makes sharing diverse perspectives easier,” she said. “In church and some social settings, there are more people that I don’t know, and there tend to be more people who still seem to believe that part of being a righteous church member means being conservative. I’ve also noticed a tendency in some wards I’ve been in for people to avoid discourse on important topics in order to keep the peace and not step on any toes.”

The feeling of discomfort is not universal. A few students responding to the Universe’s request for student commentary on the issue, like Whitaker, said their level of comfort depends on who they’re around. A few more said they always feel comfortable, including BYU law student Johnny Blood, who said BYU is “the only safe place in the nation for conservative students.”

There is strength in numbers, Blood said, and though conservatives aren’t any less likely to be mischaracterized at BYU, the greater number of conservative students at BYU than at many other universities creates more space for them to discuss and express their views. He said he feels the campus is an equally safe place for liberal students to share their views, as well.

“I don’t frequently see students being completely ostracized for having extreme views on the left or on the right,” he said.

While levels of comfort might affect the free speech climate, they do not necessarily constitute a First Amendment violation. Blood said the First Amendment only protects Americans from the government abridging their ability to speak freely, not from private citizens or institutions.

“Just because you may get ridiculed for a view, does not mean that your right to speak is being infringed, because just as much as you have a right to speak, so do opponents to call out weaknesses in your arguments,” Blood said. “Anyone that is willing to speak up should be willing to receive feedback and counter viewpoints.”

Hunt agreed. Though BYU is not legally restrained by the First Amendment, Hunt said, he feels the university has done a good job of permitting free expression, citing several recent protests and other examples of organized expression the university has allowed to take place on campus.

Across the board, BYU students spoke of the need for increased tolerance and civil discourse on campus. This isn’t an issue unique to BYU; Hunt said American democracy is threatened by intolerant, hyper-partisan political rhetoric.

“I think we’ve lost the ability to engage in any respectful civic dialogue in this country. And we’ve got to fix that, because that is what our system of government depends on, is people being able to engage in rational, civil, respectful discourse on the issues without being subject to personal attacks,” he said.

He encouraged BYU students to listen with empathy and resist the temptation to try to persuade someone else to one’s own political viewpoint or “win” a debate. It starts, he said, with an individual commitment.

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