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Survey shows majority of college students feel ‘intimidated’ to share opinion, unlikely to disagree with professor

Buckley Program releases eighth annual college student survey showing students are more likely than ever to self-censor
Silhouette crowd of people protesters vector illustration

When Chief Justice Earl Warren expounded on the symbiotic relationship between academic freedom and democratic ideals in the renowned majority opinion for Sweezy v. New Hampshire, he said, “Scholarship cannot flourish in an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust,” and warned the country that “[t]eachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise our civilization will stagnate and die.”

Unfortunately, new data show that college students are not heeding the former chief justice's wisdom.

Last month, the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program at Yale released findings from its eighth annual national survey of undergraduate students, revealing trends of self-censorship and intimidation that should concern free speech advocates. 

“The college student disillusionment with free speech is growing at an alarming pace,” said Buckley Program founder and Executive Director Lauren Noble.

These long-term trends include an increase in the number of students who feel intimidated to share views in the classroom that differ from those held by their professors or peers; an increase in the number of students who think the U.S. Constitution is outdated and that the First Amendment does not protect “hate speech”; and an increase in students’ support for policing speech, either by reporting it to administrators, using the “heckler’s veto,” or engaging in violence to stop someone from expressing offensive views.

“The college student disillusionment with free speech is growing at an alarming pace,” said Buckley Program founder and Executive Director Lauren Noble. “More students are intimidated from speaking freely and more students are willing to intimidate others from speaking freely than at any time in the history of the survey.”

Students increasingly feel intimidated by professors and their peers

First, almost three-in-five students (58%) say they “frequently” or “sometimes” feel intimidated to share ideas, opinions, or beliefs in class that differ from those of professors. This is a notable increase from the 49% who said this in 2015, and it represents the highest-ever percentage of students reporting they are intimidated by their professors. Perhaps even worse, just 38% say they “rarely” or “never” feel intimidated by their professors, which reflects a sharp decline from the 50% of students who said this in 2015.

Buckley Program free speech on campus poll bar graph
Source: Buckley Program

The story is similar when asking about feelings of intimidation around other students. Just over three-in-five students (63%) say they “frequently” or “sometimes” feel intimidated to share ideas, opinions, or beliefs in class that differ from those of their classmates or peers. This represents a 13% increase from the 50% of students who felt this way last year. Roughly one-third (34%) say they “rarely” or “never” feel this way. This is 9% lower than the percentage of students who felt this way in 2015, and 13% lower than the students who felt this way last year.

Students aren’t crazy about the Constitution but still like the First Amendment — though many think it doesn’t protect ‘hate speech’

In addition to feeling more intimidated when it comes to speaking out on campus, students reported declining support for the Constitution. Just under half of students (49%) say that the Constitution is a very important document, compared to 36% who say it is outdated. In 2015, 63% said the Constitution was important, compared to 27% who said it was outdated. Notably, this year marks the first time less than 50% of students said the Constitution is an important document. The attitude that the Constitution is outdated is particularly pronounced among liberal college students, 54% of whom say this compared to 27% of moderates and just 13% of conservatives.

Strangely, while students’ feelings about the Constitution, as a whole, were mixed, their attitudes were considerably warmer toward a specific component of it: the First Amendment. Encouragingly, 80% say that it is “an important amendment that still needs to be followed and respected in today’s society,” compared to just 12% who say it is “an outdated amendment that can no longer be applied in today’s society and should be changed.” 

A notable portion of students support the regulation of speech by professors and college administrators.

Additionally, more than eight-in-ten (84%) students agree that incoming and current students “need to be better educated on the value of free speech and the diversity of opinion on campuses.” Only 8% disagree. Similar percentages of students said that professors and administrators need such education. 

Indeed, further survey results reveal that more education is needed. Almost half (48%) of students erroneously believe that the First Amendment does not protect hate speech; while 44% believe, correctly, that it does. This is the first time more students said that hate speech is not protected by the First Amendment, and represents a 17% increase over the 31% of students who said this in 2017. 

Speech police call for ‘death penalty’

A notable portion of students support the regulation of speech by professors and college administrators. Specifically, just over half of students (51%) agree that “there are certain issues that school administrators or professors should prohibit from being debated on campus.” And 43%, as compared to 39% last year, believe that peers who express offensive political views should be reported to school administrators. However, those who believe the opposite — that their peers should not be reported for offensive speech — (48%) take the edge by a small margin. 

A plurality of students (45%) oppose the implementation of speech codes to regulate student and faculty speech, while 41% of students do support speech codes. Responses to this question have fluctuated considerably since 2015, when 48% favored speech codes. For instance, the following year it dropped to 38%, and in 2019 reached a nadir of 35%, only to spike back up to 48% in 2020. Fluctuations in percentages of students who oppose speech codes show a similar pattern. 

Support for using physical violence to prevent a person from espousing racially charged comments has also increased.

Perhaps more concerning is the increasing support for the “heckler’s veto” and the use of violence to prevent the expression of offensive views. More than two-in-five students (44%) agree that it is sometimes appropriate to shout down or disrupt a speaker on campus, up from 38% in 2015 and 32% in 2019. Almost half of students (47%) feel the opposite way; however, this represents a decline from 56% in 2017 and 61% in 2019. 

Support for using physical violence to prevent a person from espousing racially charged comments has also increased. Just over two-in-five (41%) students agreed that physical violence can be justified in such situations, an increase from 30% in 2017. Additionally, just under half (49%) of students answered the opposite way, representing a 13% decline from the 62% who did not support physical violence as a response to racially charged comments in 2017.

Finally, in a question asked for the first time in 2022, almost half (48%) of students agreed that violence in response to offensiveness is not a new phenomenon and the same percentage say that some kinds of expression are so offensive they deserve extremely harsh punishment — like the death penalty

Students favor compulsion

Some other notable findings from the survey include majority support for compelled speech as a prerequisite for employment. Two-thirds (67%) of the students surveyed agreed that employment at their college or university should require favorable diversity, equity, and inclusion statements from all professors and administrators. Sixty-five percent support making signing a DEI statement a prerequisite for employment at any company, business, or organization. Additionally, a majority of students (51%) agreed that their college or university should require students and faculty to introduce themselves by stating their preferred gender pronouns.

Students are confused at best about what free speech means 

The annual Buckley surveys allow for cross-sectional comparisons of trends in student attitudes over time, enabling us to ascertain how campus culture changes. Unfortunately, the recent changes are concerning. 

Overall, the survey results show that students appear to be confused at best, and antagonistic at worst, when it comes to free speech.

Students increasingly feel intimidated to express their views in the classroom when they differ from those of their professors or their peers. They are also increasingly likely to see illiberal forms of protest — shouting down a speaker or using physical force — as justified to prevent some forms of expression. Disturbingly, almost half of them said that in some circumstances the death penalty is an appropriate form of punishment for offensive expression

Furthermore, although a large majority of students still consider the First Amendment important, many of them do not seem to have a good grasp of it — close to half of college students do not know that the First Amendment protects hate speech. At the same time, over 80% say that incoming and current students, faculty, and college administrators “need to be better educated on the value of free speech and the diversity of opinion on campuses.” 

Overall, the survey results show that students appear to be confused at best, and antagonistic at worst, when it comes to free speech.

But FIRE can help. In partnership with First Amendment Watch at New York University, we developed a series of resources that colleges and universities can use to teach their incoming and current students about free speech rights and the principles behind the First Amendment. These resources are free and we encourage students and faculty concerned about the state of free speech on their campus to use them. We also encourage administrators to implement these resources during orientation for incoming students.

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