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Gallup/Knight survey sheds light on changing student attitudes about free speech

Polling powerhouses Gallup and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation are back with a new survey of college students’ attitudes about free speech issues. Their survey builds on a similar survey the group conducted in early 2016, and it asks questions similar to the ones asked of students in FIRE’s “Speaking Freely” survey, which was released last October.

When comparing the data between the two Gallup/Knight surveys, some interesting possible trends appear that suggest students today are less supportive of some types of speech on campus than they were in 2016:

  • In the new survey, conducted in November and December of 2017, students said they preferred an “open learning environment” that allows offensive speech (70 percent) to a “positive environment” that prohibits certain speech (29 percent). However, students’ attitudes have become more speech restrictive since 2016, when the percentage point difference was 78 percent to 22 percent.
  • More students today than in 2016 believe campuses should restrict slurs or “language that is intentionally offensive to certain groups” (73 versus 69 percent) and "political viewpoints that are upsetting or offensive to certain groups" (30 versus 27 percent). However, a slightly lower percentage of students today support restrictions on “costumes that stereotype certain racial or ethnic groups” (60 versus 63 percent). The declining support for restrictions on Halloween costumes could be because in early 2016, when the first survey was conducted, the Yale Halloween costume controversy was fresh in everyone’s mind. The differences here are close to the sampling margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level for the full sample.
  • More students today than in 2016 think their campus "prevents some people from saying things they believe because others might find them offensive” (61 versus 54 percent).
  • Students also think that First Amendment rights are less secure today than they were in 2016: freedom of speech (64 versus 73 percent), freedom of religion (64 versus 68 percent), freedom of press (60 versus 81 percent), freedom of assembly (57 versus 66 percent), the right to petition the government (67 versus 76 percent).

There is additional interesting data from the new Gallup/Knight survey for which there are no apparent 2016 comparisons:

  • There is mixed support among college students for speech codes. Forty-nine percent of students favor “instituting speech codes, or codes of conduct that restrict offensive or biased speech on campus that would be permitted in society more generally.” However, 83 percent of students favor “establishing a free speech zone, a designated area of campus in which protesting or distributing literature is permitted, usually with pre-approval.” It’s possible most students don’t know that inaptly named “free speech zones” are a type of restriction on speech – or speech code – which might explain the disparity with students’ mixed support for speech codes.
  • Students narrowly prefer "diversity and inclusion" as a more important value when pitted against free speech (53 versus 46 percent).
  • Students perceive that political conservatives are the least free to express their views on campus by a pretty wide margin, though most students (69 percent) believe political conservatives are free to express their views. Ninety-two percent of college students think that political liberals are free to express their views on campus.
  • A majority of students (69 percent) are in favor of canceling planned speeches because of concerns about the possibility of violence. Most students, however, (72 percent) oppose disinviting a speaker because some students are opposed to the invitation. That said, FIRE’s “Speaking Freely” survey found that when students are presented with the actual names of speakers or ideologies represented by those speakers, most students (56 percent) support disinviting some guest speakers.

Another interesting finding from the Gallup/Knight survey is that a minority of students — 10 percent —  report that it is sometimes acceptable to use violence to silence a speaker. The survey also found that 37 percent of students think it is sometimes acceptable to shout down speakers.

FIRE’s survey found that two percent of students report they would participate in actions that would prevent a guest speaker event from taking place. Even fewer (one percent) said they would use violence to disrupt an event. The difference between FIRE’s finding and the Gallup/Knight finding is probably in the wording of the questions. One survey asked students if they personally would prevent a speaker from speaking through the use of violence or other means. The other survey asked if the respondent would support preventative measures or the use of violence to stop a speaker, in general.

It’s worth looking at the data on violence in the context of the power of a minority to sometimes shape a majority. As Nassim Taleb points out in his new book Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life, "[i]t suffices for an intransigent minority – a certain type of intransigent minority – to reach a minutely small level, say three or four percent of the total population, for the entire population to have to submit to their preferences." With the rise in campus disinvitation attempts and on-campus violence over the years, is it possible that a small, determined minority of students is increasingly determining the scope of acceptable opinions allowed on campus.

Also of interest in this new Gallup/Knight poll is the finding that nearly two-thirds of students do not believe the U.S. Constitution should protect hate speech. FIRE’s survey found that “48 percent of students think the First Amendment should not protect hate speech.” (Seventeen percent reported having no opinion on whether hate speech should be protected in FIRE’s survey).

There is also the question of what students consider to be “hate speech.” The Supreme Court has never outlined a definition of hate speech for the purposes of excluding the category from First Amendment protection. FIRE’s survey found that in open-ended questions, almost half of students (45 percent) identified speech with a racist component as hate speech, and 13 percent of students associated hate speech with violence.

The Gallup/Knight study is a valuable contribution to our understanding of college students’ attitudes about free speech. But student attitudes are only one part of the equation when analyzing any campus environment’s free speech protectiveness: Administrators, faculty, lawyers, and outside interest groups also play a large role in determining who gets to speak on campus. At FIRE, we would like to see research into these groups’ attitudes, as well, such as this poll of administrator’s view on free speech issues.

We hope Gallup/Knight and others will continue to study these topics and questions in the years to come so that we can more firmly analyze trends in students’ attitudes about free speech on campus.

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