Martha Gill’s Guardian Article about Free Speech

Points to some of the evidence that is missing from Martha Gill’s recent Guardian article about free speech

Noah Carl
Noah Carl
Jun 24 · 3 min read

According to Martha Gill, “Free speech isn’t under threat. It just suits bigots and boors to suggest so”. She claims that the “scale of the problem in universities has been exaggerated”, and that “free speech defenders are muddled about what is happening”. However, she fails to mention important evidence running counter to her thesis.

Gill writes the following:

In 2018, a YouGov poll found British students were no keener to see speakers banned than the general public. In the US, a Knight Foundation survey found students were less likely than the overall population to support restrictions of free speech on campus, and Jeffrey Sachs, the US political scientist, found that there had been no “generational shift” in tolerance.

First, Gill cites a 2018 YouGov poll, which found that students in the UK were about as likely as the general population to say that speakers with various controversial views should not be allowed to speak on university campuses. However, she fails to mention that the YouGov poll found relatively strong opposition to free speech in both groups. For example, 33% of students were against allowing a speech by someone who “believes that climate change is not caused by human action”, and 48% were against allowing a speech by someone who “believes that transgender women are not ‘real’ women”.

In addition, Gill fails to mention a 2016 survey of students carried out by the Higher Education Policy Institute. While some of the findings of this survey show support for free speech among students (p. 23), most of the findings show the opposite. For example, students were asked to say, on a 5-point scale from “completely disagree” to “completely agree”, how much they agreed with the statement, “Education should not be comfortable, universities are places of debate and challenging ideas” (p. 13). Only 19% said “completely agree”, and 23% said “disagree” or “completely disagree”. Moreover, when students were asked which approach their university should favour as an overall policy, only 27% said “They should focus on ensuring unlimited free speech on campus, although offence may occasionally be caused” (p. 25).

Second, Gill cites a 2016 Gallup survey (carried out on behalf of the Knight Foundation and the Newseum Institute), which found that students in the US were somewhat more likely than members of the general population to say that colleges should “create an open learning environment where students are exposed to all types of speech and viewpoints”. However, she fails to mention that, in this survey, a majority of students (54%) agreed that “The climate on my campus prevents some people from saying things they believe because others might find them offensive”. In addition, she fails to mention the work of political scientist Zach Goldberg, who analysed data from the 2018 VOTER survey, and found that students were significantly more supportive of speech restrictions than non-students.

Third, Gill cites the work of political scientist Jeffrey Sachs, who argued that there has been no generational shift in support for free speech in the US. However, she fails to mention the three-part rebuttal by Jonathan Haidt and Sean Stevens. In addition, she fails to mention that there has been a generational shift in support for free speech among one rather important demographic group (namely white liberals), as Zach Goldberg has shown.

Noah Carl

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Noah Carl

Independent researcher