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Midd students study free speech trends

MIDDLEBURY — New York Times op-ed columnist Frank Bruni addressed an overflow crowd at Middlebury College last week about how tolerance for diverse views on campuses, as in many parts of American society, seems to have waned. (Click here to read more about his talk.)
Some members of Bruni’s audience have been asking some questions of their own.
In a report they released Jan. 3, Middlebury students Mira Chugh and Will DiGravio asked, “Why is there a widespread perception of a free speech crisis? How does media coverage of this issue contribute to the crisis narrative on college campuses around the United States?”
As part of the Media Portrayals Minorities Project, directed by Middlebury political science Professor Erik Bleich, the students analyzed nearly 6,000 articles published between 2008 and 2017.
Chugh and DiGravio concluded among other things that highly controversial and violent incidents are driving “free speech” media coverage, which in its focus on incidents at the expense of issues has grown more frequent and more negative in the last few years.
“Has this crisis been created by the media?” they wanted to know.
The research has proved their hunch that “there has been a spike in coverage in recent years,” said DiGravio, who is editor-in-chief of the Campus newspaper and was its news editor during the Murray incident.
“Going forward, we want to figure out: Why the spike? Have there actually been more free speech issues on campuses in recent years? Or have they just been covered more than in the past? What are those articles about?”
The work has helped him understand “the power the media has when it shines its collective spotlight on an issue,” DiGravio added.
Another recent report, however, suggests the campus free-speech crisis may be for real.
“Spotlight on Speech Codes 2019,” released in December by the nonpartisan Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, analyzes the written policies of 466 of America’s top colleges and universities and found that nearly 9 in 10 restrict free speech.
“Colleges should be a place for open debate and intellectual inquiry, but today, almost all colleges silence expression through policies that are often illiberal and, at public institutions, unconstitutional,” wrote Laura Beltz, the foundation’s senior program officer.

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