Last week, the Pew Research Center released the results of a global survey finding that Americans were the most supportive of free expression out of any country surveyed, but that 40 percent of all young American adults said the government should censor “offensive” speech.
The survey, Global Support for Principle of Free Expression, but Opposition to Some Forms of Speech, asked more than 40,000 people in 38 countries about their support for freedom of expression. The report found that Americans on the whole were “especially likely to embrace individual liberties,” although majorities in nearly every country surveyed thought it was at least somewhat important to live in a place with free speech and a free press.
But the most arresting free speech trend in the United States—and one of particular interest to FIRE—is the finding that a large percentage of millennials—adults aged 18–34—want the government to restrict certain types of speech that is protected by the First Amendment. A whopping 40 percent of millennials think the government should be able to punish speech that is offensive to minority groups. Tolerance of censorship is significantly more widespread among younger Americans than among older generations: Only 12 percent of the Silent generation (70–87 year-olds), 24 percent of the Boomer generation (51–69 year-olds), and 27 percent of Gen Xers (35–50 year-olds) think the government should be able to restrict speech that offends minorities.
The trend of Millennials favoring more restrictions on speech has been documented in another recent study as well. Last month, Yale University’s William F. Buckley, Jr. Program released a survey on U.S. college students’ attitudes towards free speech on campus that found that 51 percent of college students favor speech codes. That wasn’t the only disconcerting finding in the study. The 2015 Buckley Free Speech Survey also found that 32 percent of students could not correctly identify the First Amendment as the one that deals with speech and that 72 percent of students said they supported disciplinary action against those on campus who used racist, sexist, or homophobic language.
The Pew survey also asked respondents if certain speech should be limited. Specifically, participants were asked about their support for five different kinds of public expression: statements critical of their government’s policies, statements offensive to their religion or beliefs, statements offensive to minority groups, sexually explicit statements, and statements that call for violent protests. While the global median supporting the right to publically criticize the government is high at 80 percent, global support for the other categories of public expression ranges from 35 percent to 25 percent. On the other hand, a majority of Americans support speech in almost all categories. The exception? Only 44 percent of American survey participants supported the freedom to make statements that call for violent protests.
The findings of the Pew report are not surprising to FIRE, unfortunately. Indeed, Jesse Singal of New York magazine suggests that these results may not be out of line with previous surveys. But it’s clear that the results of this attitude towards speech is now regularly being seen on college campuses, where the population largely consists of 18–34-year-olds. Students frequently call for censorship or punishment of speech they find offensive, and many students have little or no tolerance for views with which they disagree. As FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff puts it, increasingly students “are arguing not for freedom of speech, but, rather, freedom from speech.”
You can read the full Global Support for Principle of Free Expression, but Opposition to Some Forms of Speech report on the Pew Research Center’s website.