Democrats, Millennials most likely to favor gov't restrictions on offensive speech
A survey released last week by the Pew Research Center finds that while a majority of Americans consider uncensored free speech to be “very important,” the sentiment is significantly weaker among Millennials than among older generations.
The poll examined 38 countries in total, asking respondents to rate the importance of things like free speech, religious liberty, and freedom of the press. On all three measures, American citizens expressed stronger levels of support than the global median.
Whereas 56 percent of global respondents said it was “very important that people can say what they want without state/government censorship,” for instance, the figure was 71 percent for Americans. Similarly, 67 percent of Americans rated a free press as very important, compared to 55 percent globally, and 69 percent said the same for unrestricted Internet access compared to a global median of just 50 percent.
Support among Americans was nearly as strong, at 67 percent, on the question of whether governments should censor “statements that are offensive to minority groups,” though it was much lower in other regions, such as the EU, where median support for the statement was only 49 percent.
Yet despite those apparently encouraging results, Pew identified some sobering insights when they examined the results in greater detail Friday, particularly with respect to the attitudes of U.S. Millennials toward offensive speech.
Although a majority of Americans in every age bracket still supported freedom of expression even for sentiments that could be considered offensive, Millennials were far less likely to evince that view than their Gen X, Boomer, or Silent Generation predecessors.
A shocking 40 percent of Millennials surveyed by Pew reported that they favor government restrictions on offensive iterations, compared to just 27 percent of Gen Xers, 24 percent of Boomers, and 12 percent of Silents.
Responses also differed markedly along political, racial, and even gender lines. Women, for instance, were much more likely than men (33 percent versus 23 percent) to support restricting offensive speech, and the disparity was even greater between whites and non-whites (23 percent versus 38 percent).
Moreover, 27 percent of political independents and 35 percent of registered Democrats expressed support for censoring offensive statements, compared to just 18 percent of Republicans.
Pew’s findings correspond closely with those of another recent poll commissioned by the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program at Yale University, which likewise recorded overwhelming support for free speech in principle, but much lower support once specific exceptions were introduced.
In the Yale survey, which only interviewed current college students, 95 percent of respondents claimed that free speech is “important” to them, only to subsequently reveal that it is somewhat less important than protecting themselves and their peers from uncongenial comments.
By a 51 percent to 36 percent margin, the students expressed support for “speech codes” on campus to regulate the timing, nature, and location of demonstrations.
Even more unsettlingly, nearly half of respondents erroneously believed that “hate speech” is not protected under the Constitution, and just under one-third could not even identify the First Amendment as the fundamental source of speech protections in this country.
The Pew survey, however, does provide some cause for optimism with its indication that support for speech restrictions tends to wane with age and education. While much of the current enthusiasm for official repression of unsavory utterances is emanating from college campuses, Pew determined that a college degree actually correlates quite strongly with support for unfettered freedom of expression.
Whereas 31 percent of individuals with a high school education or less—and 29 percent of those with “some college”—responded in favor of government regulation of offensive speech, the number drops precipitously to 22 percent among college graduates.
Combined with responses showing that speech restrictions become gradually less popular with age, Pew’s results suggest that many of the students who are currently demonstrating for “safe spaces” on campus may one day look back on their actions with a sense of chagrin.
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