What College Students Really Think About Free Speech

Still, a majority of students in every demographic drew a line for hate speech, saying that it does not deserve First Amendment protection.

On campus policies, students showed broad agreement that restrictions should be placed on racial slurs and costumes that promote stereotypes. They also widely supported safe spaces for those who feel upset or threatened and free speech zones where protests or partisan proselytizing is explicitly allowed. Even 70 percent of Republicans surveyed supported safe spaces on campus, an idea often dismissed by conservatives.

The study also asked students to weigh in on one of the more contentious free speech issues of the past year: professional athletes protesting for racial justice by kneeling during the national anthem. More than 75 percent of students in all but one demographic said those protests are protected by the First Amendment; 53 percent of Republican students agreed.

Free speech is being stifled

Students may struggle to balance free speech and inclusivity in the abstract, but they overwhelmingly and broadly prefer a learning environment that is open and permits offensive speech to one that is positive and limits it.

Students overwhelmingly prefer openness to inclusivity on campus

The vast majority of students say they would rather have a learning environment that is open and permits offensive speech to one that is positive but limits it.

Positive and prohibit some speech

Open and allow even offensive speech

Still, they increasingly believe that speech is being stifled. Last year, 61 percent said that their campus climate deterred speech, up from 54 percent in 2016. That sense was widely held among students at colleges big and small, private and public. Only Hispanic students and Republicans saw a decline in that feeling of stifled speech.

Students broadly agree that liberals have it easier, with about 92 percent saying that liberals can freely express their views on campus, while only 69 percent said the same of conservatives. Democrats were just as likely as the overall student population to hold those views.

Discussion shifts to online

The debate over speech on campus may be growing less relevant, however, with a majority of students saying that most political and social discussion now takes place online, even if they may not feel particularly good about that shift.

The vast majority of students blame social media for an increase in hate speech, with about two in three saying that platforms like Facebook and Twitter should take responsibility to limit that speech.

Students also said they found online discussion stifling and uncivil. About 60 percent said that free expression is limited online by the ability to block contrarian views and the fear of being attacked or shamed for expressing one’s beliefs. Just 37 percent believe that the dialogue on social media is usually civil.

Eroding confidence in the First Amendment

In general, students also lost confidence in the security of the five rights enumerated by the First Amendment. Freedom of the press suffered the most, with only 60 percent last year finding that right to be secure or very secure, compared with 81 percent the year before.

College student views on the security of First Amendment rights

Students who are black, women or Democrats are generally less confident than their counterparts that various First Amendment rights are “secure” or “very secure.”

Women, black students and Democrats were the groups least likely to feel confident in those rights. Less than half of the students in each demographic said that they believed the freedom of assembly was secure or very secure, for example.

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