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New Survey Reveals Americans’ Attitudes on Campus Free Speech

By January 6, 2016

On Monday, The Huffington Post released a HuffPo/YouGov poll examining Americans’ attitudes toward campus free speech in light of the recent student protests at colleges and universities across the country.

FIRE has several reservations about the survey, particularly the way it implies a false dichotomy between free speech concerns and diversity issues. As FIRE has said time and time again, these concerns are not mutually exclusive—in fact, they are interdependent. Progress for civil rights can only be effected through open discussion, and that requires the protection of marginalized speech.

Misguided framing aside, the survey does contribute some intriguing findings to the growing body of research on Americans’ attitudes about free speech on campus:

The poll found that a majority of respondents (53 percent) believed colleges should punish students who make racially offensive statements. Respondents who were black (88 percent), Hispanic (63 percent), or Democratic (71 percent) were far more likely to agree with this idea than whites (48 percent), Republicans (40 percent), or independents (48 percent).

Interestingly, there was not much variation across different age groups: 56 percent of respondents under the age of 30 said they supported sanctions for offensive speech, compared to 59 percent of respondents aged 30–44, 52 percent of respondents aged 45–64, and 45 percent of respondents aged 65 and up. These findings contradict a recent global survey conducted by Pew Research Center that found that millennials (adults aged 18–34) were overwhelmingly more likely than their older counterparts to support the idea that the government should be able to punish speech that is offensive to minority groups.

The poll also asked respondents whether colleges and universities should prioritize students’ “absolute right to free speech, even if that means allowing offensive or racist comments,” or whether it’s more important that “students have an environment free from discrimination, even if that means placing some limits on what students can say.” Forty-three percent of respondents said that schools should prioritize ensuring students had an environment free from discrimination, while 38 percent said an absolute right to free speech was more important.

Once again, there was much more variation across race and political party than age group. While 48 percent of white respondents prioritized “an absolute right to free speech,” just 4 percent of black respondents and 20 percent of Hispanic respondents made this their top priority. Furthermore, while 60 percent of Republicans and 43 percent of independents prioritized “an absolute right to free speech,” only 16 percent of Democrats indicated that this was their top priority.  

While the survey found that respondents across different age groups had relatively similar views about the importance of an absolute right to free speech, respondents under the age of 30 were the least likely out of all of the age groups surveyed to say that they prioritized ensuring that students have an environment free from discrimination if it meant the possibility of limiting student speech.

You can read the full results of the survey over at The Huffington Post’s website.