Study Shows that Ideology Affects Perception of Whether Speech Is Threatening

By February 8, 2011

A study performed by Yale University’s Cultural Cognition Project found that individuals’ perceptions about whether a particular protest is illegally disruptive are strongly affected by their cultural worldviews and ideologies.

In the study, subjects were divided into two groups and asked to watch a video of a protest to determine whether the protesters were "intimidating, interfering, obstructing or threatening." One group of subjects was told that the protesters were gathered outside of an abortion clinic to demonstrate their opposition to abortion. The other group of subjects was told that the protesters were gathered outside of a college recruitment center to protest the military’s exclusion of gays and lesbians.

The subjects were also asked questions on a variety of subjects and classified, based on their views, on two different and separate dimensions-the egalitarian/hierarchy scale and the individualism/communitarian scale. People who are more egalitarian reject traditional social strata and hierarchies, and those who are more individualistic reject the imposition of communal norms. Even though every subject was shown the same video, the study predicted that subjects who were both egalitarian and individualist (labeled EI) would be more likely to deem the anti-abortion protestors disruptive, but less likely to deem the anti-military protestors disruptive. Conversely, the study predicted that subjects who were both hierarchical and communitarian (labeled HC) would be more likely to deem the anti-military protestors disruptive, but less likely to deem the anti-abortion protestors disruptive.

These hypotheses were supported by the results, which show a strong correlation between cultural worldviews and factual perceptions about whether a protest crossed the line from protected speech into unlawful threat or disturbance. The study illustrates the concept of "cultural cognition," defined as "the unconscious influence of individuals’ group commitments on their perceptions of legally consequential facts."

The results of this well-constructed study, if methodologically sound and duplicable, should have a profound impact on our understanding of First Amendment law. This is because, as the researchers relate, free speech protections depend on neutral decision-makers who can assess whether speech is threatening or disruptive without allowing the content of the speech to impact their decision.

The lessons of this study should be especially heeded on public university campuses, where administrators have a duty to respect protected expression but may punish unprotected speech that constitutes a substantial disruption, harassment, or threat. Administrators, for example, must neutrally determine whether a student’s expression is a true threat or merely offensive speech protected by the First Amendment. As demonstrated by the study, these types of decisions are too often influenced by an administrator’s own worldview or bias.

For the sake of maintaining legitimacy and safeguarding the free speech rights imperative to the functioning of our nation’s universities, we hope administrators across the political spectrum will recognize their own fallibility and subconscious biases regarding particular speech that clashes with their own worldviews. With this awareness, they can try to look with as neutral eyes as possible at a specific set of facts to assess students’ speech.

Schools: Yale University