Survey: Speaker shoutdown support gets double-digit boost in one year

May 20, 2019
  • Majority of students say it’s acceptable to shout down campus speakers

A new Knight Foundation survey on campus free expression finds students maintain wildly different ideas on how the First Amendment should be applied. The survey mirrors similar recent surveys by FIRE and others examining these trends.

(Credit: Knight Foundation)(Credit: Knight Foundation)

A majority of students said it’s at least sometimes acceptable to shout down speakers or prevent them from speaking — and their ranks are growing, according to the survey. Between December 2017 and December 2018, the percentage of students saying it was either sometimes or always acceptable to shout down speakers increased from 37% to 51%. The number saying it’s never acceptable dropped 14 percentage points to 48%.

FIRE believes invited speakers should not be effectively canceled by mob vote — also known as the “heckler’s veto.” As we note in our primer on the subject:

The term comes from when a heckler — one seeking to silence a speaker — “vetoes” a speech by severely and substantially disrupting it so that it cannot continue. When a college cancels an event due to the disturbance (or even due to the potential for such a disturbance), the college grants a heckler’s veto to that individual.

And as we pointed out last month following a particularly notable uptick in campus shoutdowns and calls for disinvitation, this form of censorship “deprive[s] everyone of their rights.” It deprives a willing audience of their ability to hear the speaker. It deprives student critics of the ability to challenge those arguments, either through peaceful protest or pointed questions. And it deprives faculty members of the ability to exercise their academic freedom to invite speakers to campus in service of educating their students.

FIRE maintains a Disinvitation Database chronicling over 20 years of speakers who have been disinvited or threatened with disinvitation. So far this year, 14 speakers have been disinvited and an additional nine have been threatened with disinvitation. This year’s combined 23 cases is higher than 2018’s total of 16 — and we’re not even halfway through the year. The number of disinvitations peaked in 2016 when FIRE counted 43 disinvitations and attempts.

Trivia: Which invited speaker was not disinvited or threatened with disinvitation? Answer at the end of the post.

  • Stanley Tucci
  • Laura Bush
  • Mr. Rogers
  • The Dalai Lama

It’s also worth noting that 16% of students said it’s at least “sometimes acceptable” to use violence to stop a speech, a six-point increase from 2017.

More from the report:

Hate speech and self-censorship

  • In just one year, the percentage of students who agreed that campus climate prevents some people from sharing their beliefs out of fear that others may find them offensive increased seven percentage points to 68%.
  • Almost 6 in 10 say hate speech should be protected under the First Amendment. (It’s worth noting that the question was prefaced with: “The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that hate speech—that attacks people based on their race, religion, gender identify [sic] or sexual orientation—is legally protected free speech.”)

Gender differences

(Credit: Knight Foundation)(Credit: Knight Foundation)
  • Almost 6 in 10 of college men say it’s never acceptable to shout down campus speakers; 4 in 10 women agree. 
  • Women are far more likely than men to value promoting an inclusive society over protecting free speech rights. Almost 60% of women surveyed more highly favor inclusivity, while more than 70% of men more highly favor protecting free speech rights.
  • The survey asked respondents to choose whether too many people are easily offended or people need to be more careful about their language. Three in 4 college men said too many people are easily offended, while 1 in 4 said people should be more careful with their language. Women were almost evenly split.

Religious differences

  • Four out of five Mormon students say protecting free speech rights is more important than promoting an inclusive society. More than 70% of white evangelical Protestants agree.
  • Jewish respondents say otherwise: around two-thirds value an inclusive society over protecting free speech rights.
  • Jewish respondents were the only religious group in which a majority of respondents said people should be more careful with their language, rather than that too many people are easily offended.

Racial divide

  • A majority of white students (53%) say it’s never acceptable to shout down campus speakers; 41% of Hispanic students, 38% of black students, and 37% of Asian students agree.
  • Black students are most likely to value an inclusive society over protecting free speech rights. Inclusivity is prioritized by more than 60% of black respondents and about half of Hispanic respondents. White students were least likely to agree, at 42%.
  • Almost 6 in 10 black students said people should be more careful with their language in order to avoid offending others, rather than that too many people are easily offended. 38% of Hispanic and Asian students and 35% of white students agree.

Sexual orientation

  • Almost 3 in 4 gay and lesbian students prioritize inclusivity over free speech.
  • More than 60% of straight students said protecting free speech is more important.
  • Almost two-thirds of straight students say hate speech should be protected by the First Amendment. About one-third of gay and lesbian students agree.

Read the toplines on the Knight Foundation’s website. The survey was conducted in December with a sample of more than 4,400 full-time American college students.

Since 2017, FIRE has conducted surveys on campus climate issues through the support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. Check out FIRE’s surveys below:

Trivia answer: It’s a trick question. All four have been disinvited or threatened with disinvitation. Take a look at our Disinvitation Database for more.