Free speech? Nearly half of Americans self-censor, study finds

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Because of increasing political polarization, more Americans than ever — some 40% — are choosing to keep their mouths shut rather than express their opinions, according to a new Washington University in St. Louis study. In an age when social media ensures everyone can have a voice, fear causes people to stay mum, creating a silent near-majority.


“Because people so dislike each other and detest each other’s views and values, they perceive a great cost associated with sharing their opinions publicly, for little or no reward,” said James L. Gibson, study author and the Sidney W. Souers Professor of Government in Arts & Sciences. “Worry that expressing unpopular views will isolate and alienate people from their friends, family and neighbors seems to drive self-censorship.

“Free speech has never been free; but the cost of such speech today has skyrocketed. This is yet another consequence of rising political polarization in the United States.”

Gibson and co-author Joseph Sutherland, an analytics executive and Washington University graduate, said what is more surprising than how many Americans are self-censoring is who is doing it. While urbanites and the highly educated typically feel more empowered to take an active role in civic life, these same people are most afraid to speak their mind.

In the research, education was the strongest indicator of who would self-censor. Only 27% of Americans without a high school diploma self-censor, while 34% of high school graduates and 45% of those with at least some college education do.

Where you live also impacts how likely you are to feel comfortable speaking your mind. Self-censorship is more common in metro areas than in non-metro areas (42% versus 33%, respectively), which Gibson said is somewhat surprising given the greater diversity of metro areas. “Homogeneity, such as that found in many rural communities, is often associated with pressures for conformity. But not in these data,” he said.

“Far from becoming more comfortable with how to express their views as they become more educated, Americans who go to college appear to learn that they should shut up if they disagree with their peers,” Gibson continued. “As a result, it is not those who feel that they have little to say about politics who have learned to hide their ‘aberrant’ views; rather, it is those who live in the most urban and educated parts of the country.”

Researchers first began tracking self-censorship in the 1950s at the height of McCarthyism, when speaking out could result in: being labeled a Communist; aggressive investigations; job loss; and, in some cases, imprisonment. Even then, despite the very real potential consequences, only 13.4% of Americans said they engaged in self-censorship at the time. Over the past 70 years, however, that number has tripled.

Today, McCarthyism-type fear does not appear to influence self-censorship. “Among those who believe that the government might prohibit certain political activities, such as organizing protest marches and demonstrations, 40% engaged in self-censorship. Among those who believe that it would not, 41% did,” Gibson said.

“This dialogue, which is so central to our democracy, requires both a willingness to tolerate opposing views and the confidence to express opinions without fear of retribution.”

James Gibson

Likewise, political intolerance actually has declined in the U.S., suggesting that the public’s opinions in general are not the driving force behind self-censorship. Instead, pressure to keep one’s views to oneself seems to originate from one’s immediate social environment — one’s friends, family, co-workers and neighbors.

There also is not a clear partisan pattern, nor a relationship between the intensity of people’s views and their tendency to self-censor. Across the political spectrum, Republicans, Democrats, those with very strong ideological views and moderates are just as likely to self-censor.

Regardless of why people are self-censoring, one thing is clear: It’s bad for democracy.

“The hallmark of a liberal democracy is that the people are allowed to assert their views and preferences even if the government, or the majority of their compatriots, don’t like it. They get to protest, criticize, scream and, on occasion, listen and change their minds,” Gibson said. “But this dialogue, which is so central to our democracy, requires both a willingness to tolerate opposing views and the confidence to express opinions without fear of retribution.

“The fact that four in 10 Americans do not feel comfortable expressing their views should be treated as an ominous warning sign,” Gibson said. “It signals the development of a culture of orthodoxy that is animated by a false sense of certainty about what is true and what is false — and a proud intolerance of those who might dare to voice an opinion that conflicts with the mainstream.”

The Freedom and Tolerance Surveys, on which this article partially relies, were funded by the Weidenbaum Center on  the Economy, Government, and Public Policy at Washington University in St. Louis.
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