POLL: 3-in-5 students say campus climate 'deters speech'

A growing number of college students are concerned about hostility to free speech on campus, especially for those expressing conservative viewpoints.

A Gallup/Knight Foundation poll published Monday found that 61 percent of students in 2017 said that the climate on college campuses deters free expression, while the same poll in 2016 revealed that only 54 percent of U.S. college students believed that campus climate “prevents some people from saying things they believe because others might find them offensive.”

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“Students’ perceptions that their campus climate prevents people from speaking their minds are generally similar by gender, race, and ideological self-identification,” Gallup observed. “However, students who identify as Democrats (63%) or independents (62%) are somewhat more likely than Republican students (53%) to think the climate at their college deters speech.”

Likewise, the survey found that more independents and African Americans agree with the notion that campus climate may stifle free expression than in 2016, registering overall increases of 13 and 14 percentage points, respectively. 

When asked to reflect on what groups are more or less deterred from speaking their mind on college campuses, 92 percent of respondents said that political liberals are “able to freely and openly express their views,” as opposed to 69 percent who said the same about political conservatives. 

Nicole Neily, president of free speech watchdog Speech First, told Campus Reform that the contrasting results of the survey could suggest that “Republican students who are less able to freely and openly express their views on campus [are] feeling like they are more empowered to speak freely than Democrat students.” 

“The report’s authors theorize that this is because ‘the climate for speech is influenced by the party in the White House,’” she continued. “I’m not sure if I agree with that assertion.”

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In contrast to the increasing awareness of the political climate on campus, many students still do not favor an open environment that tolerates offensive and controversial speech. According to Gallup, “fewer students now (70%) than in 2016 (78%) favor having an open campus environment that allows all types of speech.”

Gallup surveyed a pool of 3,014 U.S. college students between November 1 and December 10. The margin of error is 2 percent. 

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