Free speech may not mean what most college students think it means.
The majority of college students surveyed in a Gallup/Knight Foundation study said they support free speech and believe it is vital to the health of democracy.
Yet droves of students also said they favor policies that restrict free speech such as safe spaces, free speech zones, speech codes and bans on offensive Halloween costumes.
Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, said “the discrepancy between what undergraduate students say they believe and what actions they are willing to take is really breathtaking.”
“Students like the ring of the phrase ‘free speech,’ but when it comes down to the question of what sorts of speech should be allowed, they have a Swiss cheese of exception clauses,” Mr. Wood said. “‘We like free speech, but not free speech that contradicts our personal opinions, our likes and dislikes.’ This isn’t free speech at all.”
The relationship between college students and free speech is complicated.
Seventy percent of survey respondents said they support an “open learning environment” that permits “offensive speech,” while just 29 percent said they favor a “positive environment” that prohibits “certain speech.” When asked how important free speech is, 89 percent said extremely or very important, compared with 1 percent who said not important at all.
But when pressed on specific speech policies, college students came out overwhelmingly on the side of suppression.
Eighty-seven percent said they favor the establishment of “safe spaces” where students can go “if they feel upset or threatened by things they see or hear,” 83 percent endorsed the creation of “free speech zones” in which “protesting or distributing literature is permitted” with preapproval and 49 percent said they favor the institution of “speech codes” that “restrict offensive or biased speech on campus that would be permitted in society more generally.”
Even 70 percent of self-identified Republicans said they support the creation of safe spaces, and 79 percent support free speech zones.
Mr. Wood called those numbers astonishing.
“Who knows exactly what these students who call themselves Republicans are thinking, but the whole safe space doctrine is a fabrication of the hard left,” he said. “That a strong majority of self-identified Republicans would endorse it represents a kind of ideological capture. A shocking statistic.”
College students also widely support restrictions on offensive speech.
Seventy-three percent said using slurs and “other language that is intentionally offensive to certain groups” should be restricted on campus, 64 percent said the First Amendment should not protect “hate speech” and 60 percent said wearing costumes that “stereotype certain racial or ethnic groups” should be impermissible.
More than one-third of college students, 37 percent, said it is sometimes or always acceptable to shout down speakers to prevent them from talking. One in 10 students said violence is sometimes or always acceptable to silence disagreeable speech.
William A. Jacobson, a professor at Cornell Law School, said it doesn’t take a large number of students to “terrorize the nonprogressive students into silence.”
“Free speech advocates should be very worried,” Mr. Jacobson said in a statement, “as a substantial portion of the student body views direct action to silence others as acceptable.”
The Gallup/Knight Foundation survey polled 3,014 U.S. college students from Nov. 1 to Dec. 10. It builds upon a similar survey conducted last year to document attitudes toward free speech among college students.
The survey found a year-to-year decline of 8 points in self-proclaimed support for free speech, from 78 percent to 70 percent.
Meanwhile, fewer college students believe their First Amendment rights are safe. Just 64 percent said the right to freedom of speech is secure or very secure, down from 73 percent last year.
College students view diversity and inclusion as more central to the purpose of the university than freedom of speech, the survey found. When asked to choose between the two, 53 percent chose diversity and inclusion, while 46 percent chose free speech.
Another hindrance to the free exchange of ideas may be social media. Fifty-nine percent of students, up 10 points from last year, said their peers are “afraid of being attacked or shamed” online for sharing unpopular opinions.
Yet social media’s influence on campus discourse does not appear to be slowing down. Fifty-seven percent of students said political discussions take place mostly on social media, and 43 percent said conversations take place mostly in public areas on campus.
Just 37 percent described social media dialogue as “civil.”
The majority of college students, 61 percent, said their campus climate has produced a “chilling” effect on free speech. That number is up 7 points from last year.
Mr. Wood said one takeaway from the survey is that “things are getting worse” on college campuses.
“If it holds up under further examination,” he said, “I think that it’s an indication of how far off the rails American higher education has gone, that it is more concerned with protecting the feelings of students from hearing things that they find bothersome or offensive than it is in presenting them with the full range of debated opinion.”
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