Student survey: Did student attitudes toward campus speech change after Charlottesville?

February 14, 2019

In our third survey report on college student attitudes, released late last month, we reported that 67 percent of students remember reading or hearing news reports about the protests and counter-protests that occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017. What’s more, 35 percent of students said the event changed how they think about speech and expression on campus (Charlottesville is home to the University of Virginia, where some of the white nationalist protests occurred).

But how did the events in Charlottesville change student opinions about speech on campus?

We asked the 35 percent of students (797 respondents) who reported that the event changed how they think about speech on campus to provide a text response to the following question: How did this event change your perception of speech on campus?” We read and analyzed the responses of the 414 students who responded to this question and present some of the main takeaways below.

When text is presented in quotations, it references a quote from a respondent. Some quotations may have been changed slightly to correct grammar or spelling errors, but we maintained the integrity of every response.

Safety concerns

Roughly one-quarter of these students (26 percent; 106 respondents) feel that safety was, or still is, a concern when thinking about the events in Charlottesville. Some of these students suggest that college administrators and the police need to take a more active role in maintaining order on campus. One student writes that “there should be more security,” another that “safety should always come first,” and a third that “the campus should be responsible for keeping all members of the community safe, regardless of opinion, even if it is offensive to some.” A fourth student writes that “it is saddening that the right to protest and free speech is not always lawfully protected.”

Other students are concerned that an event like Charlottesville will occur again, on their own campus. “The event made me fearful that an event similar to the one in Charlottesville could occur on my campus,” writes one student. Another writes that “you’re never too safe,” and a third that “the idea of free speech leading to potential violence or death terrifies me.”

A theme that emerges when reading through these responses is that, to a segment of students, certain safety concerns on campus, post-Charlottesville, are related directly to speech, or that speech itself can be dangerous. Responses in this vein include the following:

  • “Speech can become violent and people can be hurt.”
  • “Speech can be dangerous.”
  • “Speech can lead to violence.”
  • “Charlottesville changed my perception of speech by showing me how it could be used as a weapon.”
  • “This event showed that if you exercise your free speech right and it offends others, you put yourself in danger.”
  • “Anything you say can lead to violence and violence leads to more violence.”

Speech should be regulated on campus

A closely related theme that emerges among 18 percent of the students’ responses (75 respondents) is that certain speech or protest on campus should be regulated or censored.

Some of these students suggest that racist speech should be considered hate speech, such as one respondent who writes that “speech implying the demise of a certain racial group is not free speech, it’s hate speech.” This is not a new idea: in our first “Speaking Freely” report, we reported that “almost one-half of students (45 percent) identify speech with a racist component as hate speech,” and that “48 percent [of students] think the First Amendment should not protect hate speech.”

Just as in the “Speaking Freely” report, many of the students who responded to our questions about the events in Charlottesville categorize racist speech as hurtful or hate speech, and specifically write that racist or anti-semitic speech and protest should not be tolerated on campus. One student writes that “Nazis should not be allowed to speak in public,” another that “white supremacist groups should be banned and all members of these groups should be expelled from school,” and a third that “the alt-right is a danger and should be put down.”

Additional responses that illustrate this theme include:

  • “People should not be allowed to say hateful things or make an assembly of people based on hateful ideas against others.”
  • “Freedom of speech should not be allowed. I feel that one is not entitled to hateful speech.”
  • “Hate and intolerant speech should be prohibited.”
  • “I think that, while we should encourage people to have their own opinions, campus should not allow any groups that preach hate against a group of people.”
  • “Hate speech should NEVER be tolerated.”

Speech should be protected on campus and other responses

Although the above discussion provides evidence that there is a substantial proportion of students who support restricting expression on campus, there is also a group of students who suggest that more speech should be promoted on campus (15 percent; 63 respondents).

For example, one student writes that “the ability to have a say, as a student, is vital.” Another student suggests that “we have the right to vocalize how we feel,” and another writes that “it is important to see that free speech be upheld even under the threat of violence.”

The events in Charlottesville also spurred some students to engage in self-reflection, such as one student who writes that the events “made me value my freedom of speech more,” and another that Charlottesville “made me open my eyes more to being able to have freedom of speech.” Some students were also moved to action: one student writes that “it encouraged me to fight more for minorities,” another writes that “it pushed me to try harder to protest,” and a third writes that Charlottesville “made me value civil liberties more.”

Finally, a small group of students (3 percent; 14 respondents) writes about the importance of being open-minded, even if others hold different opinions. One student writes that “even if you have a specific viewpoint on something, you shouldn’t be rude to someone who thinks differently.” Another writes that “other peoples’ opinions need to be respected.” A third writes that “hate speech is okay but we’ll never move forward as a nation until we can actually unite.”

Conclusion

A year after the events in Charlottesville, we reported that “more than half of students (55 percent) think the climate on their campus makes it difficult for students to have conversations about important issues such as race, politics, and gender,” and that “60 percent of students [think] that promoting an inclusive environment that is welcoming to a diverse group of students should be a more important priority than protecting students’ free speech rights.”

It is possible that many of the text responses above, which support increased censorship and monitoring of speech, are a result of the difficult or tense speech climate that students report on college campuses, coupled with the high value students place on equity and inclusion. This hypothesis deserves further study, as it is important to understand the causes and determinants of students’ attitudes toward expression and other civil liberties on and off campus.