SURVEY: Students' confidence in free speech rights, support for safe spaces plummet

A minority of college students reported that feel 'secure' about their free speech rights.

Support for safe spaces and speech codes has also dropped significantly since 2017.

The Knight Foundation’s recent “College Student Views on Free Expression and Campus Speech” report reveals that only 47% of students feel their free speech rights are “secure,” which represents a 37% decrease in that sentiment since 2016. 

A growing majority of students believe that their campus stifles free expression, according to the Knight Foundation’s findings. In 2016, 54% of those polled agreed with this sentiment. But by 2021, the number has grown to 65%.

From 2019 to 2021, the number of Black students reporting feeling that the first amendment “protects” them dropped from 60% to 51%. Startlingly, the number of Black students reporting that the first amendment protects them a “great deal” dropped from 25% to 5% over the same period. 

[RELATED: Have you or a loved one been ‘affected’ by ‘free speech?’ Colorado State University has resources to help.]

White students, by comparison, suffered a less dramatic drop from 94% to 90% during the same period.

Additionally, support for safe spaces and speech codes has declined to historic lows, according to the poll. 

In 2017, 87% of students supported campuses providing safe spaces for students to be free from uncomfortable situations, conversations, or ideas. By 2021, that number dropped to 60%. Support for speech codes dropped from 49% to 33% during the same time frame. 

[RELATED: WATCH: Defending students’ free speech rights in the COVID era]

A majority of students from every background believe that the campus climate prevents individuals from saying things that others might find offensive, including 62% of Black students, 65% of Hispanic students, and 66% of White students. 

Along partisan lines, 61% of Democrats, 67% of Independents, 71% of Republicans agree with that statement. 

Roughly half of the students reported feeling uncomfortable expressing disagreement with class instructors. Interestingly, this holds true for both Black and White students at 46% and 49%, respectively. 

Likewise, only 25% of students support disinviting speakers from campus because some “perceive their message as offensive or biased against certain groups of people.”