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New campus studies show dip in free speech support; support for censorship, violence

Findings included in two recent studies measuring college students’ opinions toward expression suggest both a dramatic dip in student support for free speech, and marked increases in support for censorship. More striking still are revelations that 17 percent of students say they support rewriting the First Amendment, and that nearly one-third support physical violence as an acceptable response to “hate speech.”

And these are just some of the unsettling trends highlighted in the recent analyses measuring college students’ attitudes toward free speech on campus.

Study 1: ‘Student Opinion on Campus Speech Rights: A Longitudinal Study’ at Smith College

In Student Opinion on Campus Speech Rights: A Longitudinal Study, graduate student Julie Voorhes and Smith College government professor Marc Lendler compare data on students at Smith College, a private, women’s liberal arts college in Massachusetts, and find Smith students increasingly prioritize social justice concerns over free expression.  

“Students come to Smith prepared to accept censorship on behalf of causes they support, and then have those views reinforced by community consensus,” the authors conclude in the report.

The authors also note that, historically, students could be counted on to say they supported the First Amendment in the abstract, even when that support declined when presented with concrete examples of speech they disagreed with. Now, however, that has changed.

“[P]erhaps the most startling change in the 2016 survey was the large decline in support for even the most generalized phrasing of norms regarding speech rights,” the authors write. Their conclusions here are worth quoting at length:

Using the terms in which the Supreme Court has discussed the First Amendment, it might be said that Smith students sixteen years ago took a content-neutral approach to the questions of speech rights presented to them. Although they may not have held overwhelmingly libertarian values, they were relatively even-handed in regard to left and right speech. In contrast, Smith students in 2016 form their judgment on the acceptability of speech based largely on its content. It seems that many current students have established “protected categories,” by which students support restrictions because the words are directed at what they take to be a historically marginalized group that needs protection from hostile expression. The shift in mentality when answering questions of speech rights from 2000 to the present is one in which Smith students have moved away from thinking about free speech in terms of principles and moved towards judging speech based on who the speaker is and what group is involved. [Emphasis in original.]

And because elite colleges like Smith churn out disproportionate numbers “of political activists, opinion-setters, and … members of the legal community,” the authors suggest their data provides some support for the argument that growing intolerance on college campuses could threaten America’s liberal democracy, and provide support for the growing popularity of “populist or tribalist movements.”

Study 2: The 2017 Buckley Free Speech Survey

The 2017 Buckley Free Speech Survey, sponsored by The William F. Buckley, Jr. Program at Yale, supports the theory that censorial inclinations are not confined to elite or liberal-leaning institutions, but exist among college students nationwide.

The survey polled 800 undergraduates at colleges and universities nationwide on topics such as the First Amendment, campus speech codes, intellectual diversity, speaker disinvitations, “hate speech,” and social media’s impact on political discourse. More than 90 percent of students said both that the issue of free speech was important to them, and that there is educational value in engaging with differing or dissenting viewpoints. However, many students also support censorship, and one-third of students support the use of violence to prevent hate speech.

Among the most troubling data points from the survey:

  • On speech codes: Forty-eight percent of students support campus speech codes that regulate speech.
  • On hate speech: Sixty-six percent of students define hate speech in broad terms, responding that it can be anything one particular person believes is harmful and that hate speech means something different to everyone. Thirty-one percent of students think that hate speech is not protected under the First Amendment.
  • On speech and violence: A large majority of students, 81 percent, think that words can be a form of violence, and 30 percent think that physical violence can be justified to prevent someone from using hate speech or making racially charged comments.
  • On speaker disinvitations: Thirty-eight percent of students think it is sometimes appropriate to shout down or disrupt a speaker on campus. More than half of students (58 percent) think their college should ban speakers who have a history of engaging in hate speech.

“This survey reveals troubling attitudes about free speech held by students across the political spectrum,” Buckley Program founder and executive director Lauren Noble said in a press release announcing the findings. “While unsurprising, these results underscore just how much needs to be done to revive open and honest discourse. Colleges and universities should be leading the way.”

FIRE conducted its own recent survey on student attitudes toward free expression. Click here to read “Speaking Freely: What Students Think about Expression at American Colleges.”

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