In the last year, a spate of bills seeking to limit how college professors talk about contentious issues — such as race, gender, and sexuality — were proposed in state legislatures. FIRE wrote about our opposition to many of these “divisive concepts” bills, and we are currently challenging what is perhaps the most blatantly unconstitutional among them, Florida’s “Stop WOKE Act,” in court.
While many of these bills may have been drafted primarily to apply to K-12 schools, where states possess broad discretion to shape curriculum, there is a push for similar legislation that would apply to in-class instruction at public institutions of higher education. According to a new poll by YouGov, a majority of Americans oppose laws that regulate what college professors may or may not discuss in the classroom.
The government has broader powers to decide what is included in public K-12 curriculums where the government itself is speaking to a captive audience of minors. In contrast, there has been over 65 years of Supreme Court case law prohibiting the government from imposing curricular bans in higher education, where the students are typically enrolled by choice and are also overwhelmingly adults.
According to the YouGov poll, the bills that would impose curricular bans in higher education are most popular among Republicans (30% supporting) — perhaps unsurprising, given that most of these bills are emerging from Republican-controlled legislatures. Importantly however, a plurality of Republicans (43%) oppose these laws. Just 19% of Democrats and only 12% of Independents support laws regulating academic speech.
We should take a page from Killer Mike, who recently reminded Americans, “If you don’t believe in freedom of speech for those people you don’t agree with, you don’t believe in freedom of speech at all.”
The poll results also reflect that partisanship is not the only categorical framework that exposes meaningful differences in opinion among the American public on the question of whether instruction should be more tightly constrained in college classrooms. Laws regulating what professors can and cannot say in the classroom are more often opposed by adults 65 and older (68%) and among adults between 45 and 65 (60%), than among Americans between 30 and 44 (45%) and those between 18 and 29 (42%).
It may not be surprising that millennials and Gen Zers, who consistently demonstrate a greater skepticism toward free speech than do older generations, are less concerned with preserving academic freedom. It also makes sense that those for whom the Red Scare and the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s loom larger in collective memory are less sympathetic to laws that threaten academic freedom.
Notably, age played a more significant role than education level in predicting whether a respondent supports or opposes these laws. For instance, “even among Democrats and Republicans separately, older and less educated Americans are less likely to support laws regulating professors’ speech.”
The results of this poll reinforce decades of research, which shows that people tend to approve of free speech in the abstract, but waver when they’re asked about specific points of view. On this note, we should take a page from Killer Mike, who recently reminded Americans, “If you don’t believe in freedom of speech for those people you don’t agree with, you don’t believe in freedom of speech at all.”