This publication was made possible through the support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation.

The toplines and tabulations delivered to FIRE from YouGov (California) as well as an FAQ on the survey can be accessed at https://www.thefire.org/publications/student-attitudes-free-speech-survey.

Table of Contents

Executive Summary

Self-Expression

  • 87% of students feel comfortable sharing ideas and opinions in their college classrooms.A majority of students surveyed (87%) feel comfortable sharing ideas and opinions in their college classrooms.
  • Very liberal students are 14 percentage points more likely to feel comfortable expressing their opinions in the classroom than their very conservative peers.
  • Half of students (54%) agree that they have stopped themselves from sharing an idea or opinion in class at some point since beginning college.
  • Almost one-third of students (30%) have self-censored in class because they thought their words might be considered offensive to their peers.
  • Almost one-third of students (29%) have self-censored on campus outside of class because they thought their ideas might be politically incorrect.

Reactions to Expression

  • A majority of very liberal students (63%) and almost half of very conservative students (45%) agree that it is important to be part of a campus community where they are not exposed to intolerant or offensive ideas.
  • There is a partisan divide of 32 percentage points in attitudes toward campus protest: 28% of Democrats and 60% of Republicans agree that they should not have to walk past student protests on campus.
  • Nearly three times as many students might try to understand the point of view of someone who makes a statement with which the student strongly disagrees (59%) than someone who makes a racist statement (21%).
  • Six times as many students might choose to talk to a campus employee about a racist statement than might choose to talk to a campus employee about a statement with which they strongly disagree.

Guest Speakers

  • A majority of students (93%) agree that their school should invite a variety of guest speakers to campus.
  • A majority of students (64%) agree to having changed an attitude or opinion about an issue after listening to a guest speaker.
  • 65% of students agree to having changed an attitude or opinion about an issue after listening to a guest speaker. Higher proportions of Democratic (68%) and very liberal students (57%) agree to changing an attitude or opinion after listening to a guest speaker than Republican (55%) or very conservative (45%) students.
  • Democratic students are 19 percentage points more likely than their Republican peers to agree that there are times a speaker should be disinvited.
  • Three-quarters of very liberal students (78%) and less than half of very conservative students (38%) support the withdrawal of a guest speaker’s invitation in some cases.
  • A majority of students (69%) who support disinvitations in some cases agree that a speaker’s invitation should be withdrawn if the speaker has made racist or hateful comments.
  • Very few students report that they might participate in actions that prevent a guest-speaker event from taking place, such as making noise during the event (2%), or using violent action to disrupt the event (1%).

Hate Speech

  • Almost half of students recognize that hate speech is protected by the First Amendment. Of the 46% of students who recognize this, 31% think hate speech should not be protected.
  • Just over one-third of students (35%) think hate speech should be protected by the First Amendment.
  • In open-ended questions, almost one-half of students (45%) identify speech with a racist component as hate speech, and 13% percent of students associate hate speech with violence.

Methodology

FIRE contracted with YouGov, a nonpartisan polling and research firm, to conduct a national online survey of 1,250 undergraduate students who currently attend a two- or four-year educational institution in the United States. Survey respondents were participants in YouGov’s online, opt-in research panel, consisting of about 1.8 million individuals.

YouGov used an online survey to interview 1,395 undergraduate students between May 25, 2017, and June 8, 2017. Respondents were offered incentives from YouGov in exchange for completing the survey. The final dataset was created by matching responses down to a sample of 1,250 observations based on a sampling frame constructed using the 2013 American Community Survey. After the matching process, YouGov calculated weights for each response based on the respondent’s gender, race, and age.

Tabulations from the final dataset have an estimated margin of error of +/– 3.1 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Tabulations taken from subgroups of the sample have a greater margin of error. All of the reported tabulations are weighted. The median amount of time it took a respondent to complete the survey was 20 minutes.

The aim at each stage of this survey project was to objectively understand the opinions and attitudes of college students.

Before publication, this report was externally reviewed by Wendy L. Watson, JD, PhD, and Angela C. Erickson to verify that the results are presented in a fair and honest way. Every effort has been taken to ensure that the following interpretations are accurate.

Detailed Results

Self-Expression

Students were asked to identify whether they feel comfortable sharing ideas and opinions in their college classrooms. Very liberal students are 14 percentage points more likely to feel comfortable expressing their opinions in the classroom than their very conservative peers.[1]

However, most American students (87%) do feel comfortable sharing ideas and opinions in their college classrooms. Whether or not students are comfortable sharing their opinions in the classroom does not vary by gender and varies only slightly by race, with a majority of White students (85%), Black students (93%), and Latino students (90%) feeling comfortable expressing themselves in the classroom. Democrats (90%) are slightly more comfortable sharing their opinions in the classroom than Republicans (83%).

Of the students who feel uncomfortable sharing their ideas and opinions in the classroom, a majority of them (56%) still do so.[2]

Most students (86%) also feel comfortable sharing their ideas and opinions on their college campuses when they spend time outside of class. As in the classroom, whether a student feels comfortable does not vary by gender, and a majority of White students (85%), Black students (88%), and Latino students (89%) are comfortable expressing their ideas on campus. Democrats (91%) are slightly more comfortable sharing their opinions on campus than Republicans (82%).

Unlike in the classroom setting, where there is a 14 percentage point difference, there is a 21 percentage point difference between very liberal and very conservative students in the number of students that feel comfortable expressing opinions outside of the classroom while on campus.

However, the evidence that students feel comfortable expressing themselves in the classroom and on campus does not necessarily imply that they always do so. At least half of students (54%) agree that they have stopped themselves from sharing an idea or opinion in class at some point since beginning college. The likelihood of self-censorship increases during a student’s time at college. Slightly less than half of first-year students (47%) and somewhat more than half of fourth-year students (59%) have stopped themselves from expressing an idea or opinion in the classroom. Students have similar experiences outside of the classroom: almost half of students (44%) agree to stopping themselves from sharing an opinion on campus outside of the classroom, with greater frequency among fourth-year students (48%) than first-year students (35%).

It makes sense that students who have spent more time on campus will have had more opportunities to express an idea or opinion—and to stop themselves from expressing an idea or opinion. However, it is important to fully understand why students choose not to speak up when they have an idea or opinion during their time in college.

Students could choose multiple reasons for why they self-censor in the classroom. We find that more than one-quarter of students (27%) report self-censoring for three or more listed reasons. Among the listed reasons for not expressing themselves in the classroom, students most often selected that they thought they might be incorrect or mistaken (53%). Almost half of students (48%) self-censored because they thought another student might judge them, and just under one-third of students (30%) did not speak up because they thought their peers might consider their words offensive.

The dynamic of self-censorship due to peer pressure is also evident on campus outside of the classroom. As in the question about self-censorship in the classroom, students could choose multiple reasons for why they self-censor on campus outside of the classroom. One-half of students (50%) report self-censoring for three or more of the listed reasons. Among the listed reasons for not expressing themselves outside of the classroom, just over one-third of students (39%) selected that they thought they might offend someone, 38% selected that they self-censored because another person might judge them, 34% because they might hurt someone’s feelings, and 29% because they thought that their idea might be politically incorrect.

Reactions to Expression

Almost all students (92%) agree that it is important to be part of a campus community where they are exposed to the ideas and opinions of other students. To gain a deeper understanding of students’ attitudes toward the expression of their peers, we asked students what actions they might take in response to statements their classmates might make. Students were asked how they might respond when a classmate says something (1) with which the student strongly disagrees, (2) that the student finds offensive, (3) that the student finds hurtful, and (4) that the student finds racist.[3] Students report being open to the ideas and opinions of others, but our findings show that if they interpret classmates’ remarks to be offensive, hurtful, or racist, they are more likely to avoid the classmates who make those remarks.

Students' reactions to their classmates' statementsWhen students hear their classmates say something with which they agree in class, almost three-quarters of them (72%) report that they might express their agreement with the statement. Other students might friend the speaker on social media (17%) or might talk with the speaker outside of class (34%). When they agree with their peers’ ideas, students report that they might respond by further engaging with those ideas or by taking steps to make friends with the speaker. This is consistent with our finding that about one-quarter of students (28%) report that meeting people and developing friendships is one of the three most important things they want to gain from college.[4]

When students hear statements with which they strongly disagree in class, more than one-half of them report that they might try to understand their classmate’s point of view (59%). Just under one-third of students (28%) might avoid interaction with the student in the future, but very few students (5%) might tell the other student not to voice that opinion.

Reactions to speech change, though, when students tell us how they respond to speech they find offensive. Fewer students might try to understand the point of view of their peers when they hear an offensive statement (35%) than when they hear a statement with which they strongly disagree (59%)—a 17 percentage point difference. As figure 1 shows, The proportion of students who might try to understand the point of view of a classmate decreases even further when the classmate says something that the student finds hurtful (28%), or racist (21%).

Nearly half of students (45%) might avoid interacting with a peer who makes an offensive statement, and one-half might avoid peers who make statements they find racist (50%).

These differences show that higher proportions of students do not want to engage with their peers when their peers say something offensive or hurtful, than when their peers say something with which they strongly disagree. Students especially do not want to engage with those who make racist statements. Substantially fewer students, at a difference of 38 percentage points, might try to understand the point of view of someone who makes a racist statement than someone who makes a statement with which the student strongly disagrees (fig. 1).

Some students report that they might talk to a campus employee about statements with which they strongly disagree (unweighted N = 32), offensive statements (unweighted N = 95), hurtful statements (unweighted N = 100), and racist statements (unweighted N = 192). Almost twice as many students might discuss racist statements with campus employees than statements they found hurtful.

Students report that they might discuss racist statements with a college administrator (unweighted N = 144), police officer (unweighted N = 58), or a member of a bias response team[5] (unweighted N = 44) more often than they would speak with them about hurtful statements.[6] Six times as many students might choose to talk to a campus employee about a racist statement than about a statement with which they strongly disagree.

More than half of students (58%) agree that it is important to be part of a campus community where they are not exposed to intolerant or offensive ideas. A majority of Black (76%) and Latino students (69%) agree that it is important to be part of a campus community where they are not exposed to intolerant or offensive ideas, as opposed to one-half of White students (51% agree). Sixty-three percent of very liberal students and 45% of very conservative students agree that it is important to be part of a campus community where they are not exposed to intolerant or offensive ideas—an 18 percentage point difference.

Students’ attitudes toward the public presentation of student opinions vary by ideology as well as by partisanship. Few very liberal students (17%) agree with the idea that they should not have to walk past student protests on campus, whereas a majority of very conservative students (64%) agree. There is a partisan divide of 32 percentage points in attitudes toward campus protest: 28% of Democrats and 60% of Republicans agree with the idea that they should not have to walk past student protests on campus.

Guest Speakers

A majority of students (92%) agree that having guest speakers on campus is an important part of the college experience. Even if students strongly disagree with the point of view of a guest speaker, they feel the speaker should be able to talk on campus,[7] and a majority of students (93%) agree that their schools should invite a variety of speakers to campus. Although students agree that inviting guest speakers to campus is important, we find evidence that students also support the disinvitation of guest speakers in some cases.

Students reactions to guset speakers with whom they strongly disagreeStudent attitudes toward guest speakers are consistent with their reported behavior; most report that they have attended guest-speaker events on their campuses. A majority of students (85%) report having attended at least one guest-speaker event during their time on campus, and almost half of students (44%) report having attended at least three.

A majority of students (64%) agree to having changed an attitude or opinion about an issue after listening to a guest speaker. More students who participate in activist activities (74%)[8] agree to having changed an attitude or opinion after listening to a guest speaker than students who do not participate in activist activities (60%). More Black (77%) and Latino (72%) students agree to having changed an attitude or opinion after hearing a guest speaker than their White (58%) peers. Higher proportions of Democratic (68%) and very liberal students (57%) agree to having changed an attitude or opinion after listening to a guest speaker than Republican (55%) or very conservative (45%) students.

Consistent with our finding that a majority of students (93%) agree that their school should invite a variety of speakers to campus, almost one-half of students (42%) might attend a guest-speaker event when they strongly disagree with the speaker’s opinions. As figure 2 shows, some students who disagree with guest speakers might boycott the event (16%), attend an alternative event (21%), or attend a protest against the speaker’s ideas (11%). Other students might choose to voice their views about the guest speaker’s ideas by writing an opinion piece for their student newspaper (13%), posting on social media about the speaker (15%), or speaking up during the question portion of the event (33%).

Very few students report that they might participate in actions that prevent a guest-speaker event from taking place. Five percent of students might take down flyers promoting the event, 4% might try to prevent other students from attending it, 2% might make noise during the event, and 1% of students might use violent action to disrupt it (fig. 2).

Disinvitation of Guest Speakers

Guest speakers students might want to disinvite by partisanshipA disinvitation occurs when a guest speaker has been invited to a campus to speak, but the college or university later withdraws the speaker’s invitation. Although we find that most students (93%) agree that their school should invite a variety of speakers to campus, more than half of students (56%) agree that there are times when a college or university should withdraw a guest speaker’s invitation after the event has been announced. Nearly two-thirds of activist students (65%) and slightly more than one-half of students who don’t engage in activist activities (52%), agree that there are times when a college should withdraw a guest speaker’s invitation in some cases.

We find evidence of a partisan divide in attitudes toward disinvitations. Democratic students are 19 percentage points more likely than their Republican peers to agree that there are times a speaker should be disinvited. Almost half of Republicans (47%) and two-thirds of Democrats (66%) support disinvitations in some instances. There is a 40 percentage point ideological divide in attitudes toward disinvitations: 78% of very liberal students and 38% of very conservative students support the withdrawal of a guest speaker’s invitation in some instances.

There are a variety of reasons why a school might withdraw a guest speaker’s invitation. A majority of students who support disinvitations in certain cases think a speaker’s invitation should be withdrawn if the speaker has made racist or hateful comments (69%) or if the speaker has participated in criminal activity or professional misconduct (66%). Some students think speakers should be disinvited if the university cannot provide adequate security for the event (45%), if protests are planned against the speaker (20%), or if a letter is written to the administration asking that the invitation be withdrawn (28%).

We gave students a list of 64 people (or types of people) who, if invited to speak at their school, students might want to disinvite. This list included names of real people, including Barack Obama and Sarah Palin. It also included adjectives that could describe a type of person, such as feminist, racist, or sexist.[9] One-quarter of students (25%) indicated that they might not want any of these 64 individuals or types of people to be disinvited.[10] More than one-third of students (38%) might want their school to disinvite a racist speaker, and 36% of students might want a sexist speaker to be disinvited.

More strongly Democratic students might want their schools to disinvite a racist speaker (52%), a sexist speaker (49%), a homophobic speaker (47%), or President Trump (43%), than any other speaker. Strongly Republican students might want their schools to disinvite an anti-American speaker (31%), an abortion provider (30%), or a racist speaker (27%) more than any other speaker. One-third of strongly Republican students (31%) might not want their school to disinvite a speaker at all, as opposed to 14% of strongly Democratic students (fig. 3).

Hate Speech

Attitudes toward Hate Speech

Student knowledge of hate-speech protection and Student attitudes toward hate speechThe First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects freedom of speech, including the right to express hateful and offensive opinions. The Supreme Court has not provided a legal definition of hate speech and has consistently rejected any hate-speech exceptions to the First Amendment.[11] This absence of a legal definition is reflected in the attitudes of students, where we find no clear consensus regarding how to define hate speech.

There is currently disagreement among students over whether hate speech should be protected and how, if at all, it should be defined. Almost one-half of students (46%) recognize that hate speech is protected by the First Amendment, and one-third (31%) of these students think that it shouldn’t be protected.[12] Some American students consider some speech that is not protected by the First Amendment, such as unlawful discrimination and incitement, to be hate speech. Other students consider portions of constitutionally protected speech to be hate speech, while some consider a mix of unprotected and protected expression to be hate speech. Further complicating the debate on hate speech is the opinion held by some students that hate speech is a form of violence.

The topic of hate speech is currently being discussed on college campuses. These discussions may affect students’ attitudes toward hate speech, and it is possible that students feel hate speech is a divisive or emotionally loaded topic. To account for this, when we asked students about their attitudes toward hate speech, we allowed them to report not having an opinion on hate-speech protections.[13] Seventeen percent of students report having no opinion on whether hate speech should be protected.[14]

Just over one-third of students (35%) think hate speech should be protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Almost one-half of students (48%) think the First Amendment should not protect hate speech (fig. 5).

Whether a student thinks hate speech should be protected by the Constitution varies by the student’s gender, and varies slightly by their race. More men (42%) than women (30%) think hate speech should be protected, and more students with reported family incomes of $120 thousand or more support First Amendment protections for hate speech than students with lower reported family incomes.[15]

A student’s partisanship and ideology are also important indicators of whether they think hate speech should be protected. A majority of very conservative students (60%) and almost one-half of Republicans (46%) think hate speech should be protected. In contrast, the majority of both very liberal students (64%) and Democrats (57%) think hate speech should not be protected.

Definitions of Hate Speech

Students’ attitudes toward hate-speech protection are only one portion of the current discourse surrounding hate speech on college campuses. To better understand how hate speech is being discussed on college campuses, we asked students a series of open-ended questions about their views toward hate speech.[16] Because we asked students for text answers to these questions, a qualitative analysis of their responses was required. When there are quotations around text in the following discussion, it indicates that the text is a response from a respondent to an open-ended question on hate speech. These responses do not represent the opinions of FIRE or the authors of this report. The statistics reported in the remainder of the report will not be found in the tabulations and toplines provided by YouGov.

We find evidence of a group of students who suggest the identity of the speaker and listener is important when they define hate speech. To these students, hate speech cannot take place between people of the same race or ethnicity, particularly when the words spoken have to do with race or ethnicity and have a negative connotation. For example, one student wrote that hate speech is “a person calling someone of a different racial background horrible names and treating them as if they were inferior.” When asked for an example of hate speech, this group of students depicted a person from a particular racial or ethnic group using a racial slur or saying something derogatory about someone from another racial or ethnic group. Almost one-half of students (45%) identify speech with a racist component as hate speech.[17]

Ideology and hate-speech protectionA subset of the students who think the identity of the speaker and listener is important for understanding hate speech also think that the listener must belong to a minority group that has been targeted by discriminatory practices. One student responded that “hate speech intends to defame and slander a minority individual or group, and it is backed up by current oppressive policies within the government, society, or culture.” Another wrote that hate speech is “used to delegitimize the existence of individuals or groups of people [and] is targeted toward historically disenfranchised groups of people.” These students often used the words “dehumanizing” and “power” when describing hate speech.

A very small group of students (3%)[18] identify hate speech as something very different from racist or dehumanizing remarks. These students suggest that hate speech is being used as a partisan tool to silence or censor individuals who identify as conservative or Republican, or who do not identify as progressive. Their responses indicate an attitude that hate speech is “something made up by the [political] left to counter what the [political] left does not want to hear,” or that it is a “meaningless term” that is “deliberately ambiguous, so that anyone can classify any opinion as hate speech.” Most of the students who defined hate speech in this way answered, “none of the above,” when asked which definition of hate speech most closely aligned with their own.[19]

Finally, responses to our open-ended questions point to yet another group of students who associate hate speech with violence.[20] Of our total sample, 13% of students associated hate speech with violence. Most of these students write that hate speech “encourages” violence against a group or individual, but some write that this speech may “incite [or] glorify violence against a group.” A few students suggest that hate speech itself is actually a form of violence. One student wrote that hate speech “constitutes violence. It goes beyond voicing an opinion about an issue and instead threatens the existence of others.”

The conceptions of hate speech discussed here are not a comprehensive list of the responses we received, but they are representative of the main themes about which students wrote. Categorizing and analyzing these responses can help advance the national dialogue that is taking place on college campuses about hate speech. More research by organizations and scholars is necessary to gain a greater understanding of students’ attitudes toward hate speech.

Footnotes

[1] Two scales for partisan identification and one scale for ideological identification are used in this report. All three scales are based on self-identification, were provided by YouGov, and allowed respondents to choose a “not sure” option. The five-point ideological scale includes the following identifiers: very liberal, liberal, moderate, conservative, and very conservative. The three-point partisan scale includes the following identifiers: Democrat, Republican, and Independent. The seven-point partisan scale includes the following identifiers: strong Democrat, weak Democrat, lean Democrat, Independent, lean Republican, weak Republican, and strong Republican.

[2] Of the 1,250 total respondents, 13% (unweighted N = 167) feel uncomfortable sharing their ideas in the classroom. Of those 167 students, 56% (unweighted N = 96) agree that they “shar[e] an opinion even when [they are] uncomfortable doing so.”

[3] Students were able to select as many actions as they might take in response to a classmates’ statement as applied, from a given list of answer options. These answers may only indicate what the student might do on one such occasion, rather than in all classroom situations.

[4] Students reported that the three most important things they want to gain from college are: to “learn specific skills and knowledge for my future career”; to “explore career options for after college”; and to “meet people and develop friendships.”

[5] We define a bias response team as “an administrative body at a college or university that solicits, responds to, and often investigates, reports of offensive or biased student and faculty speech. Reports of biased speech can often be made to these teams anonymously.” (FIRE, Bias Response Team Report 2017, accessed September 12, 2017, https://www.thefire.org/fire-guides/bias-response-team-report-2017/.)

[6] Students would talk to a college administrator (unweighted N = 58), a police officer (unweighted N = 26), or a member of a bias response team (unweighted N = 18) about a hurtful statement.

[7] Ninety-three percent of students “strongly agree” or “agree” with the following statement: “Even if I disagree strongly with the point of view of a guest speaker, he/she should be able to talk about his/her ideas on my college campus.”

[8] Activist students are those who report expressing themselves in one or more of the following ways on campus: using chalk to write on blackboards or sidewalks, handing out flyers or pamphlets, getting involved in a political campaign, writing for a campus publication or newspaper, attending or participating in a protest or rally, or organizing a protest or rally. Three hundred ninety-eight (or 31%) of respondents qualify as activist students under that definition.

[9] The full list of speakers is provided in the Survey Questionnaire section at the end of this report.

[10] Twenty-five percent of students answered “none of the above” when provided with a list of people they might want to be disinvited from speaking at their school.

[11] See, e.g., Matal v. Tam, 137 S. Ct. 1744, 1764 (2017); Snyder v. Phelps, 562 U.S. 443, 461 (2011); R.A.V. v. St. Paul, 505 U.S. 377, 393 (1992).

[12] One hundred seventy-one students recognized that hate speech is protected by the First Amendment, but think it should not be protected.

[13] Respondents were able to skip any question in the survey, including questions in the section on hate speech.

[14] Seventeen percent of students responded, “I don’t know,” when asked the following question: “In your opinion, should the First Amendment to the Constitution protect hate speech?”

[15] Thirty-five percent of students with a family income under $40 thousand, 36% of students with a family income of $40–$80 thousand, 32% of students with a family income of $80–$120 thousand, and 46% of students with a family income of $120 thousand or more support First Amendment protections of hate speech.

[16] We asked students the following three questions: When you think of hate speech, what comes to mind? In your opinion, what is an example of hate speech? How would you define hate speech?

[17] Five hundred seventy-nine students used the word “race,” “racial,” “racist,” or “racism” when defining hate speech in the open-ended questions.

[18] Thirty-eight students described hate speech in this way.

[19] We asked, “Which of the following definitions most closely aligns with the definition of hate speech you just provided to us?” Respondents could choose from the following answer options: “racist speech that is intended to insult another person because they belong to a particular racial group”; “a term used to describe negative or controversial statements”; “powerful and negative speech that causes harm (ex: stress, exclusion, silence)”; “words directed toward a particular individual or group that characterizes the individual or group in a negative or stereotypical way”; “a phrase used to describe expression that someone else feels to be hateful”; or “none of the above.”

[20] One hundred seventy-eight students used the word “violence,” “violent,” or “harm” when defining hate speech in the open-ended questions.