Survey: Most students favor colleges restricting speech

A new survey finds that a majority of students favor some restrictions on campus speech.

The finding is part of an annual free speech survey of college students.

A new Gallup survey found the majority of students believe colleges should be able to restrict at least some speech, mainly when it comes to the use of racial slurs and offensive costumes.

Gallup and the Knight Foundation partnered together to conduct a survey of 3,319 randomly sampled U.S. college students about issues related to Freedom of Speech in late 2019. The survey found that 96 percent of students believe that citizens’ free speech rights are “extremely important” or “very important” to America’s democracy. However, they believe this right is less secure now than several years ago.

The percentage of students who believe freedom of speech is secure in America decreased by 14 percentage points from 2016 to 2019. Forty-eight percent of Republicans feel that this right is threatened while 37 percent of Democrats and 41 percent of independents feel similarly.

The study found that although a vast majority of America’s youth believe free speech is integral, many are not knowledgeable about the protections of the First Amendment. Only 50 percent of students answered one or more First Amendment questions correctly. 

Twenty-one percent of students said that the government can restrict citizens’ speech and 13 percent said they are unsure. Forty-eight percent of students said that “hate speech” is not protected by the First Amendment. More specifically, only 23 percent of self-identified Democrat students know that hate speech is protected by the First Amendment, compared with 48 percent of Republican students.  

[RELATED: Disturbing number of students say hate speech is not free speech, report says] 

When asked to rate how well certain groups “seek out and listen to different viewpoints,” the group receiving the greatest percentage of poor/very poor ratings at fifty-two percent was Americans. However, only two percent of students rated themselves as very poor/poor.  

Political conservatives rank last for being able to “freely and openly express their views” when compared to other groups such as LGBT students, Muslims, and racial minorities. About 49 percent of conservatives believe conservative students can speak freely and openly on their campus while 96 percent of liberals say conservative students can openly express their views. 

Fifty-five percent of Republicans feel “somewhat uncomfortable” or “very uncomfortable” with sharing their views in class compared to 31 percent of Democrats. Democrat students responded more favorably to restrictions on speech than Republicans did. 

[RELATED: STUDY: Free speech under ‘serious threat’ at Wisconsin colleges]

When given the choice between colleges prohibiting “certain speech” and allowing students to be exposed to all speech, 19 percent of respondents said colleges should have the power to prohibit speech. Only 10 percent of Republicans favored this move whereas 26 percent of Democrats favored the prohibition. 

More than 70 percent of students believe colleges should have the ability to restrict “slurs and other language on campus that is intentionally offensive to certain groups” and “costumes that stereotype certain racial or ethnic groups” on campus. Forty-eight percent took it a step further by responding that they would favor colleges instituting speech codes. 

When asked about a specific scenario such as groups passing out Christian pamphlets, 17 percent said colleges should be able to restrict such activity. Additionally, if students started a campus group interested in “defending Americans’ gun ownership rights,” 22 percent responded in favor of restricting such a group’s status.

“These views are generally in line with college students’ desire to restrict hateful speech but permit political speech,” Gallup concludes.

More than 75 percent of students favor the establishment of free speech zones or “safe spaces”  Three in four Republicans admit that the “climate on [their] campus prevents some people from saying things they believe because others might find them offensive” while just over half of Democrats feel the same way. 

[RELATED: Free speech zones galore: 5 Times students’ First Amendment rights were violated on campus in 2019]

Caroline Stella, a junior at Xavier University, told Campus Reform, “Students are free to believe whatever they want. That is what makes America so great. However, I believe it is inappropriate for colleges to restrict speech because doing so would remove the ability to openly discuss issues with people who have differing opinions. I also believe that restricting free speech would be immensely harmful to universities.” 

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) published an in-depth analysis of the study’s findings which highlighted the contradictions in student responses. For example, nearly 100 percent of respondents said free speech is important, but the majority also want their institution to restrict speech. 

“Asking students about how other students experience the expression climate on campus is not the same as asking about how they personally experience the expression climate on campus,” Sean Stevens, FIRE’s Senior Research Fellow in polling and analytics, said.

“Under President Trump’s executive order protecting free speech, those universities that do restrict speech, lose funding,” Stella told Campus Reform. “Restrictions on free speech would lead to a lose-lose situation for everyone.”

“Colleges can and should make these changes now so that the next Gallup-Knight poll has a chance to bring us some much-needed good news about the state of one of our nation’s most fundamental freedoms,” Robert Shibley, executive director of FIRE, said in an editorial for Medium.  

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @redwave1776 and Instagram: @enna.marie3519