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‘60 Minutes’/’Vanity Fair’ Freedom of Speech Poll: Most Americans Don’t Want Colleges to Be ‘Safe Spaces’

By February 2, 2016

The results of a new 60 Minutes and Vanity Fair poll, released yesterday, tell an interesting story about both Americans’ free speech knowledge and their opinions on just how free free speech should be in our society today.

Of particular interest to FIRE were a series of questions about the regulation of “hate speech,” which has been at the forefront of recent collegiate debates about free speech, “safe spaces,” and “political correctness” on college campuses.

A majority of Americans think people who use “hate speech” are more dangerous than those who would try to silence it.

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It’s worth noting that there is no legal definition of “hate speech” in the United States, and the poll didn’t provide one.

Americans were essentially split on whether self-censoring to avoid offending others is good or bad.

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The authors noted on this point:

There are stark political differences.  Most Republicans think such efforts are mostly harmful (55%), while most Democrats think such efforts are mostly helpful (58%).    Whites and blacks also see things differently:  while most blacks think such efforts are helpful, whites are divided.

Also notable is that a clear majority of those polled found “political correctness” problematic:

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Within that figure, though, there are also significant disparities:

Again there are partisan and racial differences.   Seven in 10 Republicans (69%) and most independents (55%) think political correctness is dangerous, while most Democrats disagree (54%).  Most whites (57%) think it’s dangerous; most blacks (51%) do not.

Most interesting was the finding that a large majority of those polled said “Americans would rather students engage in vigorous debate than be safely insulated from offending points of view.”

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FIRE has argued for policy changes to ensure college students’ have the right to engage in and experience this kind of debate for years, and while some of the results are disappointing to free speech advocates, it’s reassuring to see agreement from the public on this issue.

The rest of the poll provides insight on a variety of issues, including respondents’ thoughts on using social media as a soapbox and whether there should be a database to track Muslims, and the percentage of Americans who can correctly identify the author of this famous quote: “If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”

Do you know who said it? Only 10 percent of those polled got it right.

Find out the answer, and read the full poll results, on 60 Minutes’ website.