‘Speaking Freely’: Comparing college students’ and the American adult populations’ attitudes toward hate speech

By January 4, 2018

This is the fifth installment in a series of posts delving into the results of FIRE’s ‘Speaking Freely’ report on college students’ attitudes toward expression on American campuses. In this post, we introduce new data from YouGov on American adults’ attitudes toward hate speech and compare their attitudes toward those of college students. Make sure to check back to FIRE’s Newsdesk next week for the last post in our series, which will focus on college students’ attitudes toward guest speakers on campus.


A few weeks before we published our “Speaking Freely” report, YouGov added two of our survey questions about hate speech to their Omnibus. The YouGov Omnibus is a polling tool that allows organizations and companies to take a quick, representative look at the opinion of American adults. We are excited to publish, for the first time, new data on American adults’ knowledge of and attitudes toward hate speech.

On September 28 and 29 of 2017, 1,000 American adults were asked the following two questions:

  • As you may already know, the First Amendment to the Constitution protects freedom of speech. Does the First Amendment protect hate speech?
  • In your opinion, should the First Amendment to the Constitution protect hate speech?

These questions were, with our permission, taken verbatim from our survey questionnaire, which enables us to compare college students’ attitudes with those of the general American adult population.

The sample for our “Speaking Freely” report included 1,250 students at American colleges and universities, while the sample for the new data included 1,000 U.S. citizens who were 18 years of age or older at the time of polling. Tabulations taken from the college student sample have an estimated margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level. Tabulations taken from the American adult sample have an estimated margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level. Tabulations taken from subgroups of the sample have a greater margin of error. All of the reported tabulations are weighted.

Knowledge of hate speech protections

As previously discussed in our “Speaking Freely” report, “the 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.” We reported that 46 percent of college students recognize that hate speech is protected by the First Amendment, and new data shows that a similar proportion of American adults (48 percent) also recognize this.

Independent, Republican, and Democratic adults report similar answers to their respective college student partisans when asked about hate speech protections. Figure 1 shows that higher proportions of Republican adults (60 percent) and college students (52 percent) recognize that hate speech is protected by the First Amendment than Independent and Democratic adults and college students.

Slightly more Independent (51 percent) and Republican (60 percent) adults recognize that hate speech is protected than Independent (47 percent) and Republican (52 percent) college students, but the reverse is true for Democrats. Slightly more Democratic students (41 percent) recognize that hate speech is protected by the First Amendment than Democratic adults (38 percent).

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Attitudes toward hate speech

Although similar proportions of adults and college students recognize that the First Amendment protects hate speech, differences in attitudes toward hate speech begin to emerge when we ask respondents if the First Amendment to the Constitution should protect hate speech.

Nearly half of college students — 48 percent — think that hate speech should not be protected by the Constitution, whereas 37 percent of adults think hate speech should not be protected, an 11 percentage point difference. This difference does not necessarily indicate that adults are more supportive of hate speech protections: Similar proportions of adults (39 percent) and college students (35 percent) think the First Amendment should protect hate speech.

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As you can see in Figure 2, higher proportions of Republican adults (44 percent) and college students (46 percent) support hate speech protections than Independents and Democrats. Fewer Independent and Democratic college students report “not knowing” if they support hate speech protections than any other group in Figure 2, and they are also less supportive of hate speech protections than any other represented group: 34 percent of Independent and 29 percent of Democratic college students report supporting hate speech protections, less support than that reported by any other group represented in Figure 2.

In the “Speaking Freely” report, we found evidence that “a student’s partisanship and ideology are … important indicators of whether they think hate speech should be protected,” and new data shows that the same partisan divide in attitudes toward hate speech protections exists among the American adult population.

Partisan and ideological divides in attitudes toward free speech deserve more attention and research, as we have said before. If this subject is interesting to you, we have more information on public opinion toward expression that may be a helpful place to begin.