Knight/Gallup survey: College students’ views of free expression complicated, calls for censorship depend on whose ox is being gored

May 5, 2020

A new round of data was released today in the annual campus free expression surveys conducted by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Gallup, and the findings appear to show that college students have contradictory views on free expression and the campus expression climate. 

For example, a majority of students consider free speech important to our democracy, say they prefer a campus learning environment where they are exposed to all kinds of ideas and viewpoints, even ones that some may consider offensive, and say they are comfortable voicing disagreement with ideas expressed by faculty or their peers. Yet, a majority of students also report that the expression climate on their campus deters speech, and many support administrative restrictions on certain kinds of speech and expression.

This post discusses some of these contradictions and compares the Knight/Gallup findings to other data collected on college students’ views about free expression. These comparisons suggest that although college students’ attitudes toward free expression on campus can be seen as contradictory, they may be better characterized as complicated. Further consideration of what kinds of speech and expression students want restricted suggests that students are likely to find it difficult to support freedom of speech and expression when they consider that speech or expression racially charged.

Contradiction I: On my campus, ideas can be freely expressed. | My campus deters free expression.

In this most recent round of data collection, at least 9 in 10 students said that women, liberals, men, Hispanics or Latinos, blacks, LGBT individuals, and whites could freely and openly express their views on campus. Roughly 6 in 10 students also reported that they felt “very” or “somewhat” comfortable voicing disagreement with ideas expressed by faculty or other students. Yet, a majority of students also reported that the expression climate on their campus can deter speech. 

Students were asked if “[t]he climate on my campus prevents some people from saying what they believe because others might find them offensive,” and 63% of them “strongly” or “somewhat” agreed that the climate on their campus can deter speech. The Knight Foundation has asked this question in each administration of the survey and every time a majority of students report this about the climate on the campus. The surveys have been conducted every year since 2016 (though in 2018, the Knight Foundation partnered with College Pulse). 

As can be seen in the figure below, the 63% of students reporting that their campus deters speech in 2019 represents a notable increase from the 54% of students who reported this in 2016. 

Can people freely and openly express themselves on campus or does the climate on campus deter speech for some people? Perhaps a more appropriate question is, does it have to be one or the other? 

Consider the first finding, that most students on campus think that their peers can freely and openly express their ideas. The question asks: “On your college’s campus, do you think members of each of the following groups are, or are not, able to freely and openly express their views?” The “at least 9 in 10” figure reflects the percentage of students who responded “Yes, are able to.” What the question does not do may be more important. It does not ask about what kinds of views are being expressed.

Next, consider the finding that roughly 6 in 10 students reported that they felt comfortable disagreeing with ideas expressed by their peers or by faculty members. First, it is encouraging that a majority of students report being comfortable expressing disagreement. Second, by clearly specifying that the form of expression being asked about was disagreement, this question is less abstract than the question about groups on campus freely and openly expressing their views. But as with that previous question, what it does not do is important: The question does not specify what the disagreement is about

The third finding, that more than 6 in 10 students think that the campus climate deters the speech of some people because others may find that speech offensive, also does not specify what the offensive speech is. Furthermore, it asks whether some people are prevented from saying what they believe because others may find it offensive. It does not ask if the student thinks they personally feel prevented from saying what they believe because others may find it offensive.

A decision to self-censor is usually motivated by a fear of social isolation or ostracism.

Pointing out the wording of these items does not mean the findings should be waved away and dismissed. But it is important to consider what each question is actually asking and that the responses may be accurate, even if they appear contradictory. Students may be able to freely and openly express ideas that are unlikely to offend the vast majority of people on campus. At the same time, they may personally be more uncomfortable expressing disagreement with others, and possess some awareness that others may be carefully analyzing what they can or cannot say. Indeed, other recent data suggests that classroom self-censorship is, to some degree, dependent on the subject matter of the course or the topic of discussion

Simply put, people are social beings. Most of us monitor the social environments we occupy and have some sense of what the prevailing, or majority, opinion is on a number of different discussion topics. A decision to self-censor is usually motivated by a fear of social isolation or ostracism. It seems reasonable to expect that students in a campus setting, particularly one with a high residential student population, may possess this concern to a heightened degree or at least expect others to be somewhat concerned with such matters.

Contradiction II: Free speech and expression are incredibly important. | Please restrict speech and expression on campus.

When asked how important free speech is for democracy, over 9 in 10 students report that it is “extremely” or “very” important. Students also overwhelmingly report that they would prefer an “open learning environment” where they can be exposed to all kinds of speech and ideas, including offensive ones, to a “positive learning environment” that would prohibit exposure to certain kinds of expression. 

Yet, a notable portion of students also support a variety of administrative restrictions on speech and expression: 

  • Roughly 1 in 5 students felt that colleges should prohibit students from starting a group supporting gun rights on campus;
  • Roughly one quarter of students felt that colleges should be able to restrict the expression of political views on campus that are upsetting or offensive to certain groups;
  • Roughly 4 in 10 students felt colleges should disinvite speakers if some students perceive their message as offensive or biased against certain groups;
  • Almost one half of students felt that colleges should prohibit students from displaying a pornographic poster in their dorm room;
  • Almost one half of students favor the institution of speech codes on campus;
  • Half of students felt that colleges should prohibit students from wearing clothing that displays the Confederate flag;
  • Roughly 6 in 10 students favor canceling planned speeches because of concern of violent protests;
  • Roughly 7 in 10 students felt that colleges should be able to restrict people from wearing costumes on campus that stereotype certain racial or ethnic groups; 
  • Almost 8 in 10 students felt that colleges should be able to restrict the use of slurs and other language on campus that is intentionally offensive to certain groups; and,
  • Roughly 8 in 10 students favor the establishment of free-speech zones on campus.

This coupling of staunch support for principles of free expression with a simultaneous desire to restrict certain kinds of expression among college students is not very surprising and it replicates a classic finding from public opinion research that I discussed above in regard to Contradiction I. 

For decades, public opinion research has found that people overwhelmingly support free expression when asked about it in the abstract. However, this support often drops precipitously when specifics about who is speaking or what is being expressed are offered. 

For decades, public opinion research has found that people overwhelmingly support free expression when asked about it in the abstract.

Other recent surveys have also reported this classic finding among college students. For instance, in a 2017 FIRE/YouGov survey students were presented with a list of speakers  and asked to select those they would like their college to disinvite. The speakers that generated the strongest levels of opposition included a racist, a sexist, a Holocaust denier, a homophobic speaker, and an Islamophobic speaker. 

A 2017 Cato/YouGov survey employed a similar paradigm, asking students if a series of controversial speakers (e.g., “A speaker who says the Holocaust did not occur”) should be allowed to speak on campus. For 10 of the 13 speakers asked about, a majority of students reported that they should not be allowed to speak. Further analyses of data from both of these surveys that considered additional factors, such as party affiliation or political ideology, reveals that support for the disinvitation of a speaker likely comes down to whose ox is being gored

Whose ox is being gored matters. Knowing this reinforces the point about context and specifics made above.

If students are asked about how important freedom of speech and expression are to a democracy or how much value they place on their ability to freely and openly express themselves, most of them are likely to say that free expression is important and valuable. If they are asked vaguely about restricting political ideas that are upsetting or offensive, a greater portion support restrictions but a majority still do not. However, when they are asked about displaying pornography or the Confederate flag, or a speaker who calls for violent protest, restrictions on expression are more popular. Finally, students overwhelmingly support restrictions on expression when it is clear that it inolves slurs with malicious intent. 

When is shouting down a speaker acceptable? What about the use of violence?

Finally, students were also asked whether different forms of protest were acceptable. 

A majority of students said it was “always” or “sometimes” acceptable for students to boycott campus events or vendors, to distribute pamphlets on controversial issues, to protest speakers, and to engage in sit-ins or similar attempts to disrupt operations in campus buildings. Most students also said it is “never” acceptable for students to deny the news media access to a protest or rally, to shout down a speaker or use other means to prevent them talking, or to use violence to stop a speech, protest, or rally. These figures are comparable to ones previously reported by the Knight Foundation.

It is notable, and somewhat concerning, that almost two in five students considered shouting down a speaker, or using other means of preventing them from talking, “sometimes” or “always” an acceptable form of protest, and that more than 1 in 10 considered the use of violence either “sometimes” or “always” acceptable. These figures both suggest that a small but notable minority of college students consider such actions to, at times, be acceptable responses to offensive speech or expression. Other investigations of student attitudes toward the use of shoutdowns and violence have found something similar.

A 2017 survey conducted by the Brookings Institution that asked students about a very controversial speaker, known for making offensive and hurtful statements, found that a slight majority of students thought that shoutdowns were acceptable and that 19% thought violence was acceptable. 

Over the past three years, the William F. Buckley Foundation has asked students if they thought it was appropriate to shout down a speaker or to use physical violence to prevent someone from using hate speech or from making racially charged comments. In 2019, roughly 3 in 10 students either “strongly” or “somewhat” agreed that shoutdowns and physical violence were appropriate actions in order to prevent a speaker from delivering their remarks.

In contrast to these findings, the 2017 FIRE/YouGov survey referenced above asked students to select all of the actions they may possibly take if a guest speaker with ideas and opinions they strongly disagreed with were invited to their campus. Only 2% of students selected “make noise during the speaker’s event so he/she can’t be heard” and only 1% selected “use violent or disruptive actions to prevent the event from occurring.” 

Much of the data that appear contradictory may be due to differences in question focus.

When all of these findings are considered, a self-other distinction in responses is evident. When asked about personally shouting down a speaker or using violence against them, as in the FIRE/YouGov survey, almost no students think they would engage in such behavior. However as evidenced by the Brookings Institute and William F. Buckley Foundation Surveys, there are some students who apparently would support other students taking such actions, particularly in response to racially charged comments.

Conclusions

The contradictory view about free expression among college students that is evident upon a first glance at the latest Knight/Gallup survey has been found consistently across all four annual surveys. It is also consistent with other data on student attitudes about free expression, and data collected from individual campuses. Yet, a deeper consideration of these data suggest that college students’ views about free expression are complicated, not contradictory.

Much of the data that appear contradictory may be due to differences in question focus. Asking students about how other students experience the expression climate on campus is not the same as asking about how they personally experience the expression climate on campus.

Asking students about support for free speech and expression in an abstract sense, like “do you think freedom of speech is important to our democracy,” is not the same as asking them if they would tolerate a speaker on campus who is making racially charged comments while wearing a shirt with an image of the Confederate flag on it. Asking students if they would shout down a speaker or use violence against them is not the same as asking if it is acceptable for other students to do so. 

To be clear, it is concerning that a majority of students think the climate on their campus deters speech. Whether it is deterring their speech or the speech of others is beside the point. It is also concerning that a notable portion of students consider shouting down a speaker acceptable behavior, provided other students do the shouting. It is certainly concerning that some students would even support the use of violence, again provided other students engaged in the violence, even if they represent a small minority. However, understanding the nuance and complexity behind these attitudes is important because obtaining such understanding can help college and university stakeholders better identify when a controversy over speech and expression may be likely to occur on a particular campus.