The Myth of”Liberal Intolerance” on Campus


It’s another one of those things that people just know because they just know. Liberals are intolerant. Liberals control college campuses. Therefore, colleges suppress conservative expression and persecute conservatives.  You’re constantly hearing this message fired in your direction like a nail gun, from right-wing talk shows, blogs, books, social media and other bullhorns. As a result, according to Gallup, 92 percent of Americans believe that “liberals” can express themselves freely on campus, while only 69 percent believe “conservatives” can. And in at least 30 states, legislatures controlled by the GOP (you know, the party of “less government”) have proposed measures ostensibly aimed at protecting free speech that could actually compromise First Amendment rights.

Our good old friends at fairandbalanced Fox “News” have even gone so far as to declare that colleges are “literally destroying the country” and fomenting a “real civil war”. It’s not surprising that a reactionary propaganda outlet like Fox should be so virulently anti-intellectual.  But it’s especially chilling because the bubble-brained prattle of Fox exerts such a profound influence on the current bubble-brained regime in Washington.  Anti-intellectualism, lest we forget, is a hallmark of fascism and totalitarianism in general. Anyone ever hear of burning books? Or shipping teachers and scientists off to prison?

Fox and company can relax, if they’re capable of doing so. As with many, many other things that people “just know” the canard about “liberal intolerance” on campus turns out to be not quite so true. In fact, it appears to be blatantly untrue, according to the evidence.

It’s a given among just about everyone that college campuses mostly tilt to the left. And among right-wingers, it’s an article of faith that those tilting left are more intolerant. But a 2016 study found that they were apparently the most tolerant at least among college freshmen: 86 percent of left-leaning students entering colleges and universities indicated they could tolerate people of opposing beliefs, compared to 82 percent of middle-of-the-roaders and only 68 percent of conservatives.

Ah, but maybe that will change after they’ve been in school for awhile. Well, yes, it does. They become more tolerant. According to recent research, after a year of college, only 31.3 percent of students develop a more negative attitude toward conservatives (and 30 percent develop a more negative attitude toward liberals) while 49.6 percent develop a more positive attitude toward conservatives (and 47.8 percent a more positive attitude toward liberals). Which is to say, no matter which side of the fence they’re on, they become more accepting of the other side after they’ve been on campus for a year. In other words, it appears that the college experience makes everyone more tolerant. If it also makes everyone more liberal, then it just doesn’t add up to conclude that liberalism correlates with intolerance — unless, of course, there is a marked discrepancy between words and actions.

So what about those actions? What exactly does the punditocracy mean by intolerance on campus? Well, the specific illustrations don’t exactly unfold the way the reactionaries consistently claim, according to a survey conducted by Georgetown University’s Free Speech Project.

First of all, the project found that in the past two years there have been about 60 incidents on college campuses of free speech (apparently) being threatened or compromised in some fashion — a rate of about 2.5 incidents per month. If that sounds like a lot to you, bear in mind that there are 4583 colleges and universities in the nation. That means that the chances of any particular institution being the scene of such an incident in any given year were roughly .65 percent — or less than one in 150.  Clearly, campus “intolerance” is nowhere near the raging epidemic that the reactionary punditocracy would have you believe.

The second important point is that most of the incidents defining supposed “liberal intolerance” entailed trying to bar polarizing right-wing figures from making speeches on campus. Moreover, most of these involved the same handful of polarizing right-wing figures, a gaggle of demagogues who have made a lucrative and ego-boosting career of spouting bigotry and stupidity in an effort to draw attention to themselves and portray “liberals” as intolerant — which in turn will draw more attention to themselves and swell their purses even more. If the leftists are to be faulted for anything, perhaps it’s being gullible enough to play into their hands.

Finally, and perhaps most interesting, this study and others have shown that “liberals” aren’t the only perpetrators, and “conservatives” aren’t the only targets. There have also been many instances of individuals being targeted because they had made statements that were considered too left-wing; quite often, it was daring to criticize the 45th White House Occupant, an offense for which they had received death threats from tolerant “conservatives”.  Just try to wrap your head around that: expressing displeasure with the most dishonest, corrupt, bigoted and hateful White House Occupant in history will get you branded as intolerant yourself.

And there is also what is probably a much better measure of First Amendment assault on college campuses than who is or is not allowed to be a guest speaker. What about those individuals who speak there every day? Shouldn’t we pay some attention to the fallout teachers receive for taking (what is perceived as) an ideological stance as some kind of barometer of “intolerance”?

Well, Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, a Canadian political scientist (not to be confused with the American economist of the same name), has put together a database of cases in which college instructors in the U.S. were fired on such grounds. And the results are quite interesting:


As you can see at a glance, the number of “liberal” instructors who are being fired is, at present, roughly double the number of “conservatives”. And the number has spiked dramatically in recent months. How often has Fox “News” reported this?

Furthermore, whether you’re discussing dismissed instructors or disinvited guests, the numbers don’t tell the whole story. What about the reasons for the “intolerant” reactions? On the one side, who have “intolerance” toward ideologues who make racist, homophobic,  and other hateful utterances, and deliberately try to stir up controversy. On the other side you have people being fired, harassed or threatened for criticizing one extremely corrupt and dishonest politician. When conservatives are intolerant toward liberals, they’re rejecting taxation of the rich, welfare, egalitarianism and regulation of the almighty firearm. When liberals are “intolerant” toward conservatives, they’re rejecting white nationalism, discrimination, religious tyranny, and warmongering. Right-wingers disinvite Michael Moore for digging up unpleasant facts about their favorite corrupt politicians. Left-wingers disinvite Ben Shapiro for saying things like “Arabs like to bomb crap and live in open sewage” and Native Americans contributed only “dreamcatchers, tomahawks and cannibalism” and taxes support a “militant homosexual agenda”. And on and on and on.

These two types of “intolerance” are not even remotely comparable. And yet the demagogues have convinced millions of people not only that they are comparable, but that rejection of intolerance is even more intolerant than intolerance. This is, in short, yet another example of right-wing fanatics drastically shifting the goalposts and redefining incivility to suit their purposes.

Are there actual instances of leftists being genuinely intolerant on campus? Probably. But a great many of such claimed incidents don’t hold up to scrutiny. And while the studies and figures are by no means exhaustive, they are sufficient to show at the least that liberals are far from being consistently or frequently intolerant on campus; and that they are far from being the only ones. Yet these perceptions are the overriding media narrative. The fact that so many people buy into it is yet another testimony to the power of right-wing cult media to dominate and manipulate public opinion. It’s almost like it was planned that way or something.


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  1. Good Article, just to note-

    “As you can see at a glance, the number of “liberal” instructors who are being fired is, at present, roughly double the number of “conservatives”. And the number has spiked dramatically in recent months. How often has Fox “News” reported this?”

    Take this as a “heads up” rather than a criticism, but looking a the chart, while I shouldn’t weigh into the extrapolation TOO MUCH, the trend seems to have been reverse until recently. The discrepancy, however, apparently narrowed up to that point. It doesn’t require alot of imagination of what caused it.

    Likewise others could potentially argue that while we currently have more “left wing” free speech being fired, right wing free speech is going to be disproportionate if compared to the actual political profile of the faculty (I’m not aware if you have already discussed this).

    On the OTHER HAND, in your favor, taking into account of the other details of student tolerance and the rate of disobedience, unwarranted bias being the source of the disproportionate firing is unlikely. The notable hard shift in the focus of attention based on your graph likely in response to a certain “you know who” makes that even more the case.

    This is even consistent with what we would expect to be the cause of conservative firing prior to the current presidency, due to a certain alleged “muslim” supposedly bringing back racism when Blacks and Whites were laughing at racist jokes while posing with rifles for hunting purposes before the government made it illegal.

    • Yes, I did notice that the trend was the reverse, but only slightly so — and given that it’s a matter of very small numbers over a short period of time, it doesn’t seem particularly significant. The sharp reversal, however, seems rather more so.

  2. It does seem like the type of politics we have today,is the product of decades of planning by the likes of ALEC, which cares more about manipulating public opinion, than any kind of democratic principles, and has been getting more upsetting in the last few years. All of the current propaganda seems to revolve around the principle that any lie, no matter how big and no matter how offensive, is justified if it brings the desired adults, unfortunately much of the winning propaganda has been structured so as to characterize the genuine desire to preserve freedom of speech and the right to civil disobedience, as signs of bias. Thus,those of us who want to honestly dissent, are often characterized according to that desire.The fact that we get angered by the intolerance of others is displayed by the GOP, as evidence that we are not patriotic?

    The football protesters who knelt down on one knee, hardly engaged in an act of violence, yet Trump knows just how to fire up his base by
    implying that tolerant football players who gave a knee, are somehow american traitors—despite the fact that we all studied in high school civics? So I am wondering how many of us were sleeping during that class?

    Currently,the very fact that we don’t demonstrate patriotism by hugging a flag, or by humoring those who seek to marginalize the legacy of genuine heros, has been portrayed as, typical heathen behavior, and is then turned against us for that very absurd reason—the fact is that we truly value our country and all that share it, which now unfortunately causes us to be perceived as villains!

  3. Thank you for this counter perspective. However, I have 2 comments:

    1. Statements like “Our good old friends at fairandbalanced Fox “News”… bubble-brained prattle of Fox… bubble-brained regime in Washington… ” makes this sound like unacademic partisan political propaganda, which is highly off-putting to those who really most need to hear the studies & points that you present. This rhetoric appeals to those who already share these beliefs, however it has the opposite effect on those who are on the fence.

    2. I would find this more convincing & helpful if it dealt with the writings of academic centrists (like Jonathan Haidt), instead of just obviously biased & substanceless media like Fox.

  4. I personally wish I did not not need to use occasional sarcasm and colorful language because the right responds to it with self-righteous indignation. But mild sarcasm is par for the course in our country even though those who want to deny all the facts, may be going after Webster’s dictionary next, or Encyclopedia Britannica? So, considering what is happening in the rest of the world today, it’s a good thing to keep many objective sources private.

    When will the point come when Republicans cannot hide anymore, and must face their own greed? Well, whether it’s sooner or later, they will certainly lay the blame on those who wanted to check the validity of their “objective” facts, and replace with whatever is needed to speak the truth again.

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