Saying That Students Embrace Censorship on College Campuses Is Incorrect

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Yves here. I very much welcome reader perspectives on this topic, since I don’t have any contact with campus life. The problem I have with this sunny tale about forums for free speech is that it sounds a lot like “access” to health care. My perception from afar is that there is a lot of actual and self censorship. For instance:

Young people have been inculcated to be very conflict averse. College debate judges who were debaters when young were telling me ~15 years ago that the students in the room would tense up when the judges disagreed with each other and seemed to regard what was once normal constructive criticism as rude and demeaning. Just think how you have to walk on eggshells if a casual remark might be deemed a microagression.

Even if, by the numbers, cases of censorship of campus speakers are rare, they have a chilling effect

There seems to be a lot of group-think, particularly on topics like Trump, Covid, and Russia. Countering that seems to result in more heated opposition than before (weirdly contradicting the first point, you are supposed to tread carefully….save when defending an orthodoxy?)

By Bradford Vivian, Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences, Penn State. Originally published at The Conversation

The claim that college students censor viewpoints with which they disagree is now common. Versions of this claim include the falsehoods that students “shut down” most invited speakers to campuses, reject challenging ideas and oppose conservative views.

Such cynical distortions dominate discussions of higher education today, misinform the public and threaten both democracy and higher education.

Indeed, politicians in states such as Florida, Texas and Ohio argue that a so-called “free speech crisis” on college campuses justifies stronger government control over what gets taught in universities.

Since 2020, numerous state legislatures have attempted to censor forms of speech on campuses by citing exaggerations about students and their studies. Passing laws to ban certain kinds of speech or ideas from college campuses is no way to promote true free speech and intellectual diversity. The most common targets of such censorship are programs that discuss race, gender, sexuality and other forms of multiculturalism.

My concerns over public discourse about higher education extend from my book on popular misinformation about universities and why it threatens democracy. In it, I show that many negative perceptions of students and universities rest on factual distortions and exaggerations.

The character of public debates about higher education is important. Millions of Americans rely on a healthy system of university education for professional and personal success. Rampant cynicism about higher education, leading to declines in public support for it, only undermines their pursuits.

Based on my research, I offer alternative ways to frame debates about higher education. They can lead to discussions that are more constructive and accurate while better protecting fundamental American values such as free speech and democracy.

1. Avoid Stereotypes About College Students

The idea that college students are hostile to opposing viewpoints is false. Pundits and media personalities have promoted this falsehood aggressively. Such figures have benefited, politically or financially, from sensationalism about a college “free speech crisis.”

In opinion polls, college students typically express stronger support for free speech and diverse viewpoints than other groups. Partisan organizations often cherry-pick that data to make it seem otherwise. But poll results tell only part of the story about college campuses today.

Several thousand institutions make up U.S. higher education. The system includes hundreds of thousands of students from different backgrounds. College campuses are often more demographically and intellectually diverse than surrounding communities.

Judgments about higher education based on sweeping generalizations about college students conflict with the full realities of campus life. A wider range of perspectives, including from students themselves, can enrich debates about university education.

2. Consider All Forums for Free Speech in Universities

Universities protect free speech more effectively than do other parts of society. They don’t do so perfectly, but more effectively.

Universities are major centers for the study of the First Amendment, the free press, human rights, cultural differences, international diplomacy, conflict resolution and more. Many institutions require students to take basic speech and writing courses that enhance their skill in argument and debate.

Manufactured outrage about college students who protest invited speakers fuels sensationalism about free speech on campuses. Despite occasional disruptions over bigoted speakers, universities offer numerous forums for free speech, open debate and intellectual diversity.

Just one large university holds thousands of classes, meetings, performances and other events on a daily basis. People freely express their views and pursue new ideas in those settings. Now multiply that reality by several thousand different institutions.

Debates over free speech in higher education can be improved by acknowledging the many forums in which people speak freely every day.

3. Recognize the True Threats to Free Speech on Campuses

For the past several years, many state legislatures have promoted the falsehood that universities are hostile to various ideas. The most commonly cited examples are conservative ideas, traditional expressions of patriotism and great works of Western literature.

The notion of hostility to such ideas on college campuses has surfaced in numerous bills that create new forms of state interference in education. Thirty-five pieces of legislation banning diversity, equity and inclusion programs in colleges have been introduced in state legislatures. So far, three of them have been signed into law, while four are pending final legislative approval.

Tenure for faculty members, which protects independent thought, is also under assault in states such as Florida and Texas. Politicians in those states justify ending tenure protections by claiming that professors teach students to censor free speech.

Such rising government interference creates a genuine threat to free speech on college campuses and in society beyond. A historic increase in state censorship, which began with higher education, has spilled over into censorship of materials about race, gender, sexuality and multiculturalism in K-12 schools and public libraries.

Advocacy organizations like the ACLU and the American Association of University Professors have condemned this censorship. So have numerous conservative leaders.

Informed scrutiny of university policies and what faculty members teach is always welcome. But cynical distortions have fueled anti-democratic censorship of universities, not constructive efforts to improve them.

4. Understand the Role of Academic Freedom

The ability of citizens to exercise academic freedom is not only vital in education. It’s also training for democracy.

Academic freedom includes the freedom to attend a university of one’s choice. The freedom to learn what one chooses in that university. The freedom of an institution to offer a wide range of subject matters to students. And the freedom to teach or conduct research without political interference.

These freedoms are not reserved for Ivy League universities. U.S. higher education includes state schools and community colleges that serve middle- and working-class communities. Those institutions are the backbone of many professions, from health care and technology to engineering and education.

The quality of public debate over free speech in higher education matters. Government interference with colleges does not punish elites. It rewards deeply cynical views of higher education and restricts a freedom that should be available to all Americans.

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  1. Hank Linderman

    I’m surprised the article didn’t at least acknowledge Jonathan Haidt’s “The Coddling of the American Mind”, which deals with the changes in society and on campus due to well intentioned but wrong and ultimately damaging parenting. There is no question that there is intolerance for certain discussions on the left, and that legislation from the right is problematic as well. Yes, both sides do it, I’ll leave it to others to decide which is worse. To me they are both bad. I am generally more sympathetic to the left, but extremism is a problem wherever it’s from. Whatever happened to “Come let us reason together”?

    The brief reference to DEI only hints at some of the discussion on this topic. If you haven’t been through DEI training, count yourself lucky. The goals of diversity and inclusion are noble and good, but the presentation loaded with specific and limited acceptable jargon was a bit much. The approach to equity training appears to be under review in some places. Equality in the eyes of the law, absolutely yes. But equity wants to go further; a deeper look is needed.

    The issue that keeps coming up for me in my daily life is the lack of community in America. The active promotion of division and differences of identity makes us all easier to exploit for the sake of profit, power, and even celebrity. Rodney King’s quote comes to mind.


    1. Hank Linderman

      “…extremism is a problem…” does not mean all extremism is bad or unnecessary. In this case, it means that neither side is willing to consider each other’s valid concerns.


    2. NoFreeWill

      “Equality in the eyes of the law, absolutely yes. But equity wants to go further; a deeper look is needed.”

      Equality in the eyes of the law doesn’t mean you’re actually treated equally, and equity is actually the goal we should strive for. Capitalism is a system built on inequity and perpetuating/increasing it, so yes, equity is a rather extreme demand, but we live in times of extreme inequality and extreme climate change. Dunno why that is threatening to you?

  2. digi_owl

    Again i suspect it is a result of smartphones and social media.

    This has allowed anyone to record goings on 24/7, and uploading it for public shaming.

    End result is that people will be averse of saying anything in public, or even private, unless they “know” it has the backing of the online “mob”. And at that point they feel they have to go all in, or else themselves be shamed for being too lenient to the enemy.

  3. Mark Gisleson

    Sorry, I all but stopped reading after the Daily Mail style first paragraph.

    The claim that college students censor viewpoints with which they disagree is now common. Versions of this claim include the falsehoods that students “shut down” most invited speakers to campuses, reject challenging ideas and oppose conservative views.

    I want to take a very hard stand on this. Writing is not speech. Writing is premeditated, based on research and subject to close editing. When an author gaslights their readers, there is no reason to continue reading other than to note the talking points used. You cannot accidentally lie on paper, gaslighting takes real effort and thought. You can almost hear Vivian take a deep breath at the beginning of each paragraph before making an assertion and bulldozing through to a conclusion.

    As a writer (I was never a journalist which is different), I misled readers constantly but the goal was to never lie to them. Readers resent lies, it’s bad strategy and should only be used when you have no alternative or if you belong to a certain political ideology that embraces lies of all sizes.

    1. Carolinian

      I like Turley and he writes about instances of university speaker shoutdowns almost every day. You need only look at his archive.

      Here’s a recent example.

      In most of the instances the faculty are encouraging the behavior or at least looking the other way. After all would you let Hitler come on your campus and start spewing “hate” (as loosely defined by our side, the good side)?

      Long ago Fred Wiseman did a documentary called High School which showed how schools shaped young men to become cannon fodder in Vietnam. Education can teach people how to think but it can also teach them not to think and we seem to be in that mode at the moment. These days professors, like journalists, are working in insecure professions where groupthink may be seen as a form of personal protection. We shouldn’t take their excuses seriously.

      1. NoFreeWill

        The campus inviting Hitler to speak in the first place is what’s questionable. Most “shutdowns” are simply students trying to use their own right to free speech/assembly to disrupt views that are morally abhorrent from being platformed. The university could just stop inviting shitheads to speak… and if outrage from the student body prevents the university from inviting someone that’s the university choosing to exercise it’s rights not to pay money and platform the shithead.

  4. Lexx

    I went to a liberal arts college where we questioned everything; we were taught to question all our most cherished core beliefs, especially ‘authority’. Nothing was sacred or beyond reproach.

    If a belief can’t be questioned, what is its value and to whom? Someone confident in the foundation of their beliefs are difficult to challenge and can’t be rattled by conflict, they leave room for the possibility of doubt… ‘I might be wrong’. They ’embrace’ their beliefs, not gorilla grip them. They make open statements, not closed.

    The tension in the room usually begins when a someone makes an ‘inviolable’ statement. You know it’s sacrosanct by their tone, facial expression, body language, font, the audience they’re speaking to, the subject matter, and it seems calculated. They might as well have thrown down their glove and challenged for a dual to the death.

    Such people I have found thrive on conflict, they foment drama. Unless you plan to participate center-stage, you’ve just become an extra. You won’t change their minds, a lot of time will be wasted, and peace and goodwill destroyed. No one but the instigator ends up feeling better about themselves. Hardening their opinion was the objective and everyone in the room became the grist, if they disagree or remain silent.

    So many opportunities for conflict, so many players looking to occupy everyone’s attention, so many personal dramas wearing political disguises… and after they play out, what changes? Nothing discernible and not for a long time, but ymmv.

    Why don’t students just walk away? Can they? I could understand their aversion to conflict if it seems to crop up in social situations where they feel trapped by the consequences of leaving, weighed against the consequences for staying.

  5. NotTimothyGeithner

    Conservative snowflakes whine about being confronted. Decorum and Emily Post nonsense can be discussed ad nauseum, but it’s “censorship” on college campuses is just people whining about speaking fees being reduced.

    Imagine the horror of the amateur phrenologists not being able to play dress up and praise Andy Sullivan if they had to see a sign that called them skull measurers.

  6. The Rev Kev

    I’ve got an idea. Let’s put this all to a test. Arrange a number of consecutive events at a largish university on a series of topics and watch how the students react to them. The proviso is that neither staff and teachers from that university or outside organizations are allowed to attend, especially not the press. Students only. So let’s try a few topics-

    Topic 1 – The brutality of the Israeli occupation of Palestine and what life is like there for Palestinians.

    Topic 2 – How Russiagate was a Clinton/Democrat invention that had no basis in facts but which had the collusion of the FBI, the media and the establishment in pushing it. i.e Trump was right.

    Topic 3 – A talk by Dr. Hudson on how the real economic system works around the world.

    Topic 4- Why the core reason for the Ukrainian war was an attempt to maintain American/western hegemony through the rest of the 21st century.

    I would be very much surprised if those students could get through Topic 2 without riots breaking out first.

    1. Roger Blakely

      I think that you’re right. I think that this is a good list of topics. But what makes you think that any current student on campus would give a skinny rat’s butt about any of it?

    2. amos untermench

      I would be very much surprised if those students could get through Topic 2 without riots breaking out first.

      Surely you exaggerate. Hopefully anyway. I’m old now but long ago I was a communist organizer on the truck docks of Los Angeles. We were accustomed to the conventional speech on the docks. When a docker asked ‘What the fuck are blathering on about now?’ we took this, happily, as a request for more information.
      The change in style has content implications. Conflict aversion in a country of orwellian truth inversion implies accepting the deceit by default. It prevents Extremists like myself not only from being heard, but from being listened to. So I suggest that to change the content of the conventional narrative, it is necessary to change the style.

    3. petal

      Rev Kev, a detransitioner named Chloe Cole spoke here a month or two ago. One had to walk a gauntlet of protestors to get inside. They were yelling, and as mentioned in another comment, you have to worry about them taking pictures and then using the photos as ammunition. I would’ve liked to go to listen(I find it all curious from a biologist’s perspective), but it wasn’t worth potentially risking my job. There’s self-censorship here on campus. The mob law had been laid down years before-don’t draw attention to yourself by going against the flow otherwise you’re going to pay for it. The people/kids that do, they end up copping it, while the ones in the “correct” camp are allowed to skate-no matter what they do. At this point in time, best to keep your mouth shut.
      There’s some kind of campus “free speech” movement being put together by the incoming President, but I’ll believe it when I see it. It all seems like window dressing to my cynical self. The college administration and faculty had encouraged and nurtured this, treated it and students with kid gloves, and now it’s gotten out of control. Going to be hard to put the genie back into the bottle.

  7. Roger Blakely

    This discussion can be made relevant for people who have no connection to campus life. What is your experience in dealing with college-educated twenty-somethings?

    What little contact I have through work and church with college-educated twenty-somethings has left me with the impression that they are not open-minded, robust thinkers ready to roll with the punches of life. Thirty years ago I wasn’t any better. It took a long time and a lot of punishment for me to figure out how to live in the real world. I remember reading a comment about American political culture from Arundhati Roy. She said that politically-aware Americans reminded her of eggs, so fragile that they crack with the slightest bump.

    Here is a traditional African-American saying that has helped me through life: It ain’t half of what they do, and it ain’t none of what they say.

  8. Mike

    Hmmm… remarks about “threats to our democracy” make my head spin. This nation is an oligarchy, trending towards authoritarian/fascistic rule. Colleges and all educational institutions teach what they believe to be subjects and methods that will allow students to “get ahead” (usually financially if not career-wise) within the current system. No amount of reference to such a dead state of affairs will make democracy any more a reality. Democracy as a real ruling method was scotched at the time of the Constitution being drafted.

    So, open-minded and critical thinkers should not be produced from such a system, as a rule. A few will escape the hatchery and question, maybe even have a chance to revalue all our values. Those few may get somewhere if allowed to relocate elsewhere and nurture those new values, but I don’t expect anything else but a populist-led revolt against the current regime, furthering a right-wing agenda, since the “Left” all neo-cons wail about has been taken over by centrist culture obsessives and war maniacs and a real one cannot be built given the need for gobs of money to do so.

  9. Ryan

    I work at a regional public university, which doesn’t have much of this headline shouting down (or high profile speakers who might receive such treatment). I do not know that there’s an appreciable change in the past seven years (or twenty) in how willing students are to deviate from the herd in class discussions. I’ve been doing this for a while, and it seems that that tendency—the meeting decorum and conviviality principle—is alive and well in most classrooms (and most faculty meetings it turns out). However, what has seemed to me to change is a knock-on effect of the current Zeitgeist discussion: the use of the concepts wielded within this discourse surrounding campus free speech to challenge the very notion of teaching and correction—i.e., an occasional attempt to invalidate all pedagogy, as aggression, harshness, etc. This doesn’t happen a lot, and often not with undergraduates. I’ve seen it more often with graduate students. I recognize, of course, that some might argue that the humanities (that’s my area) have brought this on themselves (insert cliché misreadings of post-structuralism, postmodernism, and “theory” here), but I don’t think that represents what’s really afoot.

    I also think the focus on free speech issues misunderstands what’s actually happening in college classrooms (or what one might wish would happen). Yes, the institutions are debt and credentialing factories, but despite this there is the occasional attempt to get students to learn something. But that learning—the attempt to become an autonomous knower, who can do more than simply sort through authorities and pick out the correct one—is ill-suited to a free speech discourse that aims for little more than the protection of public position taking (I’ll leave to the side the obvious point that classrooms aren’t free speech zones, but do have topics and foci that limit discussion). The presupposition there is that all you could possibly do with your learning or knowledge is trot it out for all to see in a public forum and then … well, what? Get rewarded for it, somehow, by an authority figure? If that is all there is to the process, which is the conclusion that the free speech debate seems to me to demand, then why isn’t all of this just so much vain self-promotion and sycophancy? The presupposition that that’s how the world works makes students crap readers of anything ever written, because they already have decided for them what the book, poem, play, letter, text, epigram, slogan, or report is about: self-promotion. You don’t need to read it if that’s all there is (Jonathan Swift didn’t like the way the Irish were treated. Yeah, got it. Box ticked.). That’s what seems to me sinister about the free speech framing of current campus culture debates: it ultimately bleeds back into the purported “content” of education to flatten everything into so many hot takes or positions or feelings on pressing issues (the presupposition being that Milton couldn’t have been thinking of Virgil as his contemporary, but only of what was happening in his own lifetime; and in turn that all you can care about is the very contemporary, current issues to which you must react, respond, etc.).

    I realize, of course, that that’s useful for the participants in an American two-party system bent on crowding out other options and any vision of politics beyond the short-sightedly electoral (and making the mere expression of your political opinions the sine qua non of an individual’s political life, as opposed to the actual wielding of political power). On the upside, at least this broader media framing of what ails college campuses, despite its alienness from the vast majority of college campuses, replicates what it condemns: a lack of curiosity.

    1. JBird4049

      I would say that much as changed in the past thirty years. The slow growth of it means that it was only effective after at least a decade. Add the increasing levels of censorship both encouraged and imposed, and the deliberately encouraged fear by the government and corporations, which naturally causes self censorship. Add the emotional infantilization created by fear and censorship, plus the isolation caused by the pocket computers and the destruction of all social institutions, which affects even adults who do not have cellphones.

      Much of this is not the conscious use of censorship especially by the system, but the expansion of what is uncomfortable or unacceptable, plus ostensible safe-spaces, the potential consequences of saying anything beyond pro forma statements like racism is bad, which throttles speech real good. Add the loss practice of being able to have even a regular conversation on anything without overreactions.

      While I can say that there are power hungry or foolish people trying to crush free speech, but really what I just said is the main driver. Add the impulse to run to the authorities for protection. Who may or may not be that power hungry or foolish person. Most people are fine, but again, how can you tell? Will you get the usually reasonable adult or the unreasonable adult?

      So, while there is an organized attempt to destroy free speech, which is especially dangerous to the most vulnerable, like students, it is the mob, as in most times in history, that is the most dangerous enemy. Furthermore, the uncertain, constantly changing limits, which is partly caused by people expanding the limits as a means of self protection, to what is acceptable speech means it is much safer to be quiet.

      Because the last generation to have real free speech were the Boomers and maybe the X generations, it is difficulty for many to understand just how deep a loss that has happened. But just as with the social institutions, the economy, and politics because of their slow erosion of them as well as the hidden growth of the security state, it is now only obvious to most because of the current extent and increasing speed; each strand of erosion has fed, even created, the others, I think. Four strands, including the security state, are interwoven, encouraging and protecting the growth of the other three.

      Just how does one truly see the thirty, forty, fifty, even sixty years of decay, which at first was hardly noticeable or even a bother? Personally, just how does one convey how complete and devastating the changes have been just in the past forty years without sounding like an old man muttering about kids these days and yelling at them to get off the lawn? I can **see** and **hear** all the changes, but explaining it all? While my memory has never been that good, the feeling of dislocation between then and now is extremely disorientating with anything tech just mere curiosities.

      The suppression of free speech, encouraged by the subtle(?), fearful, war mentality of the past twenty years, is one of them.

  10. Jokerstein

    Tenure for faculty members, which protects independent thought, is also under assault in states such as Florida and Texas. Politicians in those states justify ending tenure protections by claiming that professors teach students to censor free speech.

    This seems to me to deliberately want to create the (false) that tenure for faculty is pretty much universal, or at least widespread. Anyone following NC knows that this is less and less the case.

    And threats to tenure are primarily from college administrators, as part of their power grab from faculty, and financialization of their institutions, as part of feathering their own nests. If pols get on board – of ANY political persuasion – well, that’s just gravy for the admins…

    1. Acacia

      Yep. Only about 24% of all courses in colleges/universities are taught by tenured faculty. So, the academic credential factories are running on ~76% temp workers. (EDIT: this is what Gordon Shumway noted, just below; i.e., I have read the same numbers.)

      Further data point: Judith Butler at UC Berkeley — a state school — was compensated $405,000 in 2019, with an increase every year, up from $342,000 in 2016, alongside those lecturers on one-year contracts.

      Meanwhile, some of those same tenured faculty are faffing on about “liberation from hetero-normativity” and whatnot. Pfff.

      I will add one thing, which is that the “power grab from faculty” has been in part underwritten by a generation of faculty who green-lighted the outsourcing of a number of functions of their departments to the administration, so they could “focus on research”. And then, surprise, the administration started to treat them like shop floor workers.

  11. Gordon Shumway

    Having only spent much time in business and engineering schools, I have little insight into whether free speech is actually threatened by liberal snowflake students.

    What strikes me about the article is the same thing that other commentors have noted: The false faith in tenure as a protection for free speech. No, just no.

    Students are already taught by non-tenure track instructors 75%+ of the time. I don’t have a number in my head for a percent of classes taught by already tenured faculty, but it’s obviously substantailly below 25%. (Sorry, too lazy to cite sources right now, numbers are from memory)

    Given those facts, tenure has already ceased to have any effect on campus free speech. What we need is free speech protections for all instructors (and students too) regardless of tenure status. Given the current state of University administration, good luck with that. I never the less applaud unionization attempts as loudly as I can.

    1. juno mas

      70% of the teaching faculty at my local community college are ” adjunct faculty”. Non tenured and usually on year-to-year contracts. Some of them are my friends.

  12. Arclight Guard

    Free speech doesn’t involve the right to a platform such as a stage in a college campus auditorium or a private entity’s bulletin board. People who obstruct Jordan Peterson, etc., from making use of such platforms aren’t limiting his free speech.

    And if free speech were to entail a right to a platform, then there are many other views more interesting, consequential, and beneficial-to-humanity than rehashings of the spectrum from intolerance to fascism. The regrettable fact is that the high-profile ways in which people were denied platforms very frequently (1) had no effect because those denied the platform already stood on others much larger and (2) that very denial was parlayed into even greater audiences on those other platforms.

    Nor does free speech mean freedom from consequences of speech. Suffering consequences for expressing views isn’t anti-democratic.

    1. JBird4049

      >>> Nor does free speech mean freedom from consequences of speech. Suffering consequences for expressing views isn’t anti-democratic.

      Too often the opponents of free speech claim that saying X,Y, and Z is dangerous and should be suppressed, often using increasingly brutal tactics. Once an idea is deemed evil Americans will take increasingly forceful efforts to censor it, which can include permanently censoring the individual.

      People advocating for:

      women wearing pants
      or trying to get the right to vote,
      fighting Jim Crow,
      information on contraception,
      dirty words in books,
      civil rights,
      against the war of the moment
      advocating for socialism or communism,
      for unions including the right to strike
      just for gays and lesbians to even exist

      have all been subjected to:

      verbal threats,
      physical assault including broken bones and death from.
      lost jobs and businesses
      have had the printing of newspapers, magazines, and books stopped and confiscated
      false arrests

      All this by individuals, mobs, corporations, religious organizations, and the government including law enforcement.

      You will not always be on the “right” side and whatever you do believe in or want to advocate will be opposed by someone. And if that someone believes that want you believe is dangerous, do not be surprised if they make your life dangerous.

      The Enlightenment gave us Free Speech because it use to be okay to publicly torture people to death or go to war with entire armies for saying the wrong thing. I believe that some people are becoming holy warriors, fanatical willing to declare evermore ideas and concepts wrong and later evil.

      End of lecture.

  13. some guy

    . . . ” Despite occasional disruptions over bigoted speakers ” . . .

    Or is it occasional disruptions by bigoted mobs against speakers they don’t want anyone not-a-member of their bigoted mob selves to hear?

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