UW profs attempt to explain away devastating free speech survey results

A January 2021 survey found that 52% of economically liberal students support restricting speech that makes others uncomfortable

Now, three UW professors are trying to explain away those results.

After a study revealed shockingly little support for free speech among University of Wisconsin undergraduates, three professors authored an op-ed claiming that the study is flawed and should not be used to say that left-leaning students have flimsy support for the First Amendment.

The study’s results painted a bleak picture of students’ understanding of the First Amendment across political lines, and severely so for those who identified as economically left-leaning. For instance, researchers found, “41.7% of very liberal respondents supported speech restrictions while only 14.5% of very conservative respondents did.”

Three professors at the University of Wisconsin’s Department of Political Science and the La Follette School of Public Affairs - Mark Copelovitch, Jon C.W. Pevehouse, and Jessica L.P. Weeks - claimed that students who support restrictions on hate speech and other objectionable or offensive speech may still have a good understanding of the First Amendment.

[RELATED: SURVEY: 63 percent of students at this school say gov’t should punish ‘hate speech’]

The survey asked 530 undergraduate students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison if they believe that some types of speech should be restricted and if government should have the authority to punish certain types of objectionable speech. Of that group, 18 percent of students who identified as very conservative said that the government should be able to punish hate speech, while 75 percent of very liberal students said the same. The professors argued that, because “threatening or abusive speech is subject to limitations under the First Amendment,” legal punishment of hate speech may not violate the constitutional right to speak freely. 

The Supreme Court disagrees with the professors’ assessment of the legality of hate speech. It has repeatedly upheld the right to speak freely - even when that right is used to engage in speech that is hateful, offensive, or otherwise morally wrong. As described by UCLA Law professor Eugene Volokh in Reason, threats of violence are illegal, “but that doesn’t allow the punishment of supposed hate speech.”

[RELATED: Free speech advocate blasts Syracuse University’s ‘PC campus culture’]

The faculty also took issue with a survey question on government regulation of “speech that makes others feel uncomfortable,” which left-leaning students supported at a higher rate than their right-leaning peers. 

According to the professors, the question “could be interpreted as referring to sexual harassment, which is not protected by the First Amendment.” The professors argue that, since students might take this description to mean sexual harassment - and not any other kind of speech that could potentially make someone uncomfortable - they do not necessarily oppose free speech.

The op-ed notes a data point the professors see as a positive: Eighty-eight percent of students agreed that “one person should not be able to prevent another person from speaking because they hold an opposing view.” 

Still, that leaves more than one out of every ten students who believe they should have the right to silence those with whom they disagree.

Follow the writer on Twitter: @AngelaLMorabito.