Plurality of Americans say colleges should police student speech

A new poll finds that while diversity offices are generally seen as a waste of money, a majority of Americans nonetheless believes colleges should monitor and punish offensive speech.

The HuffPost/YouGov poll, which was conducted in December and released Monday, surveyed a random sample of 1,000 U.S. adults about their attitudes toward both the recent racial unrest on college campuses—exemplified by the protests at Mizzou and solidarity demonstrations elsewhere, but also encompassing separate incidents at schools like Brown and Yale—as well as their feelings about several common institutional responses to student complaints.

[RELATED: MAP: ‘Stand with Mizzou’ protests spread to campuses across the country]

The results revealed some surprising inconsistencies, with respondents expressing skepticism about efforts to teach students about tolerance and diversity, yet generally supporting the notion that colleges and universities should take action against instances of racist or offensive speech.

Asked their opinion on the creation of departments specifically devoted to promoting diversity, for instance, 32 percent said they are “an important initiative to support,” while 42 percent called them “a waste of money and resources” (the remaining 26 percent were “not sure”). A similar dichotomy surfaced with respect to whether colleges have “a responsibility to teach students about issues related to racism,” with 45 percent agreeing that they do and 41 percent disputing the notion.

The results were more lopsided, though, on the question of whether a university president has a responsibility to address racist incidents on campus, with 72 percent supporting the notion and only 17 percent taking the opposite stance.

When the questions shifted from rhetoric to concrete action, a plurality opined that maintaining a non-discriminatory environment should take precedence over free speech rights, and an outright majority asserting that administrators should police student speech and punish offensive utterances.

[RELATED: University tells students to dial 9-1-1 over ‘bias incidents’]

Answers were closely split on the priority question. While 38 percent said colleges should emphasize “making sure that students have an absolute right to free speech, even if that means allowing offensive or racist comments,” they were edged out by the 43 percent who responded that “making sure that students have an environment free from discrimination, even if that means placing some limits on what students can say” is the more important task.

[RELATED: Mizzou students asked to fill out Bias Reports due to ‘offensive’ pro-life display]

Fully 53 percent, however, stated that colleges should “punish students who make racially offensive statements,” compared to just 28 percent who said they should not (and 19 percent who were unsure).

HuffPost reports that the results are consistent—and predictable—once they are broken down by characteristics like race and party affiliation.

Just four percent of black respondents identified an absolute right to free speech as their top priority, for instance, while 69 percent valued a discrimination-free environment most highly. White people responded less monolithically, but in general were slightly less supportive of speech restrictions than was the general population.

Distinctions were also pronounced between Republican and Democrat respondents, contributing to the somewhat muddled overall results but offering clarification of the ideological divide on campus race issues.

Whereas 66 percent of Democrats said colleges do have a responsibility to teach students about racial bias, 62 percent of Republicans took the opposite position; and while 71 percent of Democrats support punishing students for offensive speech, just 44 percent of Republicans felt the same way.

Republicans were also primarily responsible for the 42 percent plurality that identified diversity offices as “a waste of money and resources,” with 70 percent of GOP respondents offering that appraisal.

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