New survey shows American students’ disturbing ignorance of and attitudes towards free speech

UPDATE: A newer article in the Guardian, discussed in this post, casts substantial doubt on whether the results of Villasenor’s poll are reliable. For one thing, his sample wasn’t random.


There’s a new article in the Washington Post by Catherine Rampell reporting a survey of American college students’ views about free speech. The results aren’t pretty. Click on the screenshot below to go to the piece, and you can see other survey results on the Brookings Institution site here.

The take-home message: students in college don’t know much about the First Amendment or how it’s interpreted, and a distressingly large number of them favor either shouting down “offensive” speakers or even committing violence when such speakers appear.




According to the article, the survey was conducted by UCLA professor and Brookings senior fellow John Villasenor, and was supported by the Charles Koch Foundation. Before you start crying “Conservatives!”, note that Rampell says this: “Financial support for the survey was provided by the Charles Koch Foundation, which Villasenor said had no involvement in designing, administering or analyzing the questionnaire; as of this writing, the foundation had also not seen his results.” Villasenor has so far given the results only on the Brookings site, but plans to incorporate them into a larger paper.

The survey used data from 1500 students, all U.S. citizens, at American four-year colleges; the data have a margin of error (for a 95% confidence interval) of between 2% and 6%.

I give the salient results in bullet points; the questions posed to the students are given in the figures below, which are taken from the Post‘s article.

  • Many students—and more women than men—believe that hate speech is not protected by the First Amendment. Of course it is, and Villasenor cites the relevant Supreme Court decisions. There’s a smaller difference between political groups, and it’s well within the margin of error. While 51% of men say that the First Amendment protects hate speech, only 31% of women hold that view. Further, 49% of women say the First Amendment doesn’t protect hate speech, in contrast to just 38% of men.

I have no explanation for the sex difference, but perhaps readers can offer hypotheses.

  • More than half of students—and far Democrats than Republicans—think it’s okay to shout down controversial speakers so they can’t be heard. Here are the data:


It distresses me that Democrats exceed Republicans by a full 23% in the data (Independents are closer to Republicans), but it doesn’t surprise me. I have heard few examples of right-wing students trying to shout down Leftist speakers, but, as the FIRE “disinvitation database” suggests, most of the suppression of speech on college campuses over the last five years has been done by the Left. To my mind, it’s never okay to shout down a speaker, for that amounts to censorship, preventing the speaker from even being heard. A speaker who’s invited has a right to speak, and the audience has a right to hear what she says. Shouting down speakers eliminates both of those rights.

  • A surprisingly large number of students (about one in five, irrespective of political affiliation) think that it’s okay to use violence to disrupt talks by a controversial speaker. In this case the suppressive instincts are greater in males: 30% of men approve of violence compared to only 10% of women. That’s not surprising given the inherently greater tendency of men than women to engage in violent behavior. But although violence may be “acceptable” to these people, but it’s also illegal and counterproductive. I can’t imagine a group thinking it’s tactically useful to shout down someone who offends them, or approves of violence to prevent someone from speaking. That might have “worked” in the old days, but these things are now recorded and disseminated instantly via social media, and, as you know from the videos from The Evergreen State College, Middlebury Colleges, and many other places, shouting down someone or running amok because you’re offended doesn’t look good.

Here are the data, which, despite the sex difference, show no difference with regard to political affiliation:

  • About 60% of all students think, wrongly, that if an organization hosts a speaker making controversial and offensive statements, it has a legal requirement to host someone with an opposing view. These data come from the Brookings site, reporting this question asked to the students:

Consider an event, hosted at a public U.S. university by an on-campus organization, featuring a speaker known for making statements that many students consider to be offensive and hurtful. A student group opposed to the speaker issues a statement saying that, under the First Amendment, the on-campus organization hosting the event is legally required to ensure that the event includes not only the offensive speaker but also a speaker who presents an opposing view. What is your view on the student group’s statement?

And here are the results broken down by sex, type of college, and political affiliation:

Now you almost certainly know that there is no legal requirement for counterspeech, and I wouldn’t even say there’s a moral requirement; the counterspeech has to come from either the nature of the organization, and whether it intends to have the equivalent of a debate, or students acting privately in opposition to the speaker. What’s disturbing is the uniformity: between 58% and 66% of students, regardless of school, sex, or politics, misinterpret what the First Amendment requires.

  • About half of all students, regardless of college, gender, or politics, favor a learning environment that prohibits expression of viewpoints that are “offensive or biased against certain groups of people” as opposed to a more open learning environment where no speech is prohibited.  Here’s the question asked, followed by the results:

If you had to choose one of the options below, which do you think it is more important for colleges to do?

Option 1: create a positive learning environment for all students by prohibiting certain speech or expression of viewpoints that are offensive or biased against certain groups of people

Option 2: create an open learning environment where students are exposed to all types of speech and viewpoints, even if it means allowing speech that is offensive or biased against certain groups of people?

Across all students, the restrictive environment was preferred 6% more often. There was no difference between men and women, nor those in private versus public schools, but there is again a difference between Democrats and Republicans—and not in the Dems’ favor. Only 39% of Democrats favored the “open” learning environment as opposed to 53% of Republicans, while the differences were reversed for the “censorious” environment: 61% vs. 47%, respectively. This jibes with the data above and the FIRE data: Democrats are more censorious than are Republicans.

An obvious reason for this is because Democrats have a stronger tradition of favoring the underdogs and the oppressed than do Republicans, and feel that banning speech that attacks those groups is a moral thing to do.  But that admirable tendency is being expressed in the wrong ways, for censorship of opposing viewpoints is not part of the liberal agenda, either, and was the reason why social progress was impeded in civil rights and women’s rights. With students having attitudes like this, it will be seen as offensive to either criticize religions (especially Islam), or to be pro-Israel. The definition of “hate speech,” as we’ve learned, is pretty damn elastic, and is adopting the meaning “speech I don’t like.”

But this isn’t just a problem of what happens to these students once they get to college, for the Post article reports this, with a link:

What’s more, colleges alone are not to blame for these findings. Other data suggest that freshmen are arriving on campus with more intolerant attitudes toward free speech than their predecessors did, and that Americans of all ages have become strikingly hostile toward basic civil and political liberties.

Colleges provide a crucible for America’s increasingly strained attitudes toward free discourse. But they are just the canaries in the coal mine.

Here’s some of the data from that link, which reports a survey of college freshmen:

The obvious question is what do we do about this?  Well, reform starts at home, so think about the First Amendment, how well it’s worked, and how the courts have interpreted it. My advice would also be that if you see other Leftists, like certain atheist bloggers or Tweeters, who advocate punching or shouting down speakers, call them out on it. Do not let people undermine an amendment that becomes useful only when it protects speech seen as offensive.

And clearly better education of students in secondary schools is needed. There is a consistent interpretation of this vital Constitutional provision, one that’s been held up by both conservative and liberal courts. We not only need to impart that information, but teach students why that interpretation has come about.  My own view would be to have students read Mill’s On Liberty in high school (and read it yourself if you haven’t yet), and then discuss it, along with discussing hypothetical situations. Watching this video featuring the eloquent Christopher Hitchens may also be useful.

While there may be people reading this post that aren’t worried by this trend, I think most of us are, and we have to speak up against the bowdlerizers, censors, shouter-downers, and Nazi-punchers. Who wants to live in a country where multiple viewpoints are not allowed to be expressed?

h/t: Grania, Diane G.


  1. Martin X
    Posted September 20, 2017 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    I don’t think students’ views are due to a misunderstanding of the Constitution, I think the misunderstanding of the Constitution is caused by students’ views. Attempting to educate them on Constitutional law won’t change a thing.

  2. GBJames
    Posted September 20, 2017 at 11:02 am | Permalink


  3. eric
    Posted September 20, 2017 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    The male/female differences are curious. It appears the men surveyed favor a more ‘rough and tumble’ society (i.e., you can speak your offensiveness, but I may shout you down or hit you for it) while the women surveyed run in the opposite direction (you should not be allowed to speak your offensiveness, but if you do, I won’t shout you down or hit you for it).

    Frankly, both are disturbing trends IMO. Because the right answer is one should be allowed to (publicly) speak, and not be shouted down or hit for it.

    • Posted September 20, 2017 at 11:40 am | Permalink

      Yes, the right to free speech includes the right of other people to hear your speech if they want to. Without that, it means nothing.

  4. chris moffatt
    Posted September 20, 2017 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    Students aren’t against free speech – witness the insults and tirades they continually loose at opponents. They are all for free speech for themselves, just not for anyone who has an opinion they (the students) don’t agree with.

  5. Posted September 20, 2017 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    Glaring typo – “you most certainly no”.

    • Posted September 20, 2017 at 11:45 am | Permalink

      Yes, thank you. Another reader pointed that out, and I fixed the typo.

  6. jay
    Posted September 20, 2017 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    The roots of this go really deep.

    I can remember about 15 years ago when I discussed (on an atheist board) Wendy Kaminer’s challenge the wisdom of certain ‘anti bullying’ rules, because she saw it morphing into something like this. It was dismissed as irrelevant. Not that bullying is acceptable, but the broad definition that covers hearing anything bothersome was a problem.

    It goes back to the ‘self esteem’ movement’ of the 90s which cultivated a false self esteem, based on ‘affirmation’ rather than actual self esteem achieved through diligence and accomplishment.

    We have a world where people feel not only that they need the right to live and speak as they please, but that society must be coerced into supporting whatever arbitrary choices they make.

    They seem to not understand that other people have the right to NOT agree with them, to NOT approve of their life choices or political positions. People misunderstand that equal rights does not mean that everything is equal.

    Vonnegut was prescient over 50 years ago

    • Diane G.
      Posted September 20, 2017 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

      New one one me–whoa! Thanks.

    • Posted September 21, 2017 at 5:32 am | Permalink

      Thanks for reminding me; it must be 50 years since I last read that.

  7. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted September 20, 2017 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    Ah for the good old days when Martin Luther King, Jr. insisted to his followers that Barry Goldwater was not racist, in spite of the latter voting against the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

    Today’s Left students have no ability to tell the difference between an honest honorable conservative like John McCain and a semi-fascist one like Ann Coulter (a fair description I think of her book “Treason”).

    I think JAC’s comment about the definition of hate speech being “damn elastic” sums it up neatly.

    • Posted September 20, 2017 at 11:53 am | Permalink

      The regressive left aren’t just against hate speech though (or what they deem is hate speech). It goes deeper than that.

      The left don’t just want to censor the speech, they want to censor the speakers too. So for example, when Richard Dawkins interview on a Berkeley radio station was canceled, thy weren’t censoring his remarks about Islam, they were censoring the man even though he was there to talk about his new science book, not Islam.

      • Posted September 20, 2017 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

        Once someone has transgressed the purity threshold they are forever shamed. Dawkins has been doomed for years.

  8. Posted September 20, 2017 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    I have no explanation for the sex difference, but perhaps readers can offer hypotheses.

    Here’s one. Disclaimer: I just thought this up and I have no evidence for or against it.

    Women are more likely to be the target of hate speech and therefore more likely to want it to be true that the first amendment doesn’t protect it.

    If the hypothesis is true, any group that has been targeted by hate speech more than normal should display the same biases.

    • mikeyc
      Posted September 20, 2017 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

      ” Women are more likely to be the target of hate speech”

      Your hypothesis rests wholly on this. I am at a loss to figure out how one would quantify it, much less define it. Nevertheless, I recently read that men reported receiving more online harassment than women. If harassment is hate speech, it’s evidence against (if I’ve remembered correctly).

      • Derek Freyberg
        Posted September 20, 2017 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

        I don’t know whether women are more likely than men to be the target of hate speech, but what I have read is that women are the target of more hateful speech (threats of or wishes for rape, etc.) than men (threats of or wishes for physical assault, but not sexual assault).

  9. Posted September 20, 2017 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    I wonder if the subjectivism we find rampant in certain circles is (partially) to blame. If there’s no truth, then there’s no truth about what the constitution does or does not say, and so the question has to be taken normatively as a “Do you think the c. *ought* to prevent hate speech?” type of deal.

  10. Randy schenck
    Posted September 20, 2017 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    I agree with other comments here that think the problem is worse than an ignorance of the Constitution. The younger generations in the U.S. were brought up to think their opinions are very important and it is also important that they feel safe and protected. Not too much competition and everyone is a winner, everyone gets a trophy. In a nutshell, they are spoiled. Just give me my $700 dollar phone and leave me alone. And certainly, my opinion is more important than the facts. Mom and Dad told me so.

    It is similar to the views of this guy we call president, embarrassing as he is. It is all about me and to hell with everyone else. When you tell the U.N. that it’s American first, why are you at the U.N. in the first place.

    • Diane G.
      Posted September 20, 2017 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

      The younger generations in the U.S. were brought up to think their opinions are very important and it is also important that they feel safe and protected. Not too much competition and everyone is a winner, everyone gets a trophy. In a nutshell, they are spoiled. Just give me my $700 dollar phone and leave me alone. And certainly, my opinion is more important than the facts. Mom and Dad told me so.

      As you certainly know–not all younger adults feel this way, and there are some push-back sites online trying to address this stereotype. One phrase I got a kick out of: “Don’t blame us; we didn’t give ourselves those participation trophies.” 🙂

      But the ones making all the noise about identity, etc., certainly seem to fit your description.

  11. Bruce Gorton
    Posted September 20, 2017 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    Here is a bloody long piece – more or less showing the dangers of the sort of ideology that is growing amongst US students.

    Okay, so would you censor speech by people who are in favour of Boko Haram?

    Remember, Boko Haram engage in the slave trade, they murder people for not believing in Islam or the right Islam, their very name means “Books are forbidden”.

    Cameroon did and the result has been a media which has to kow-tow to the government or get arrested based on the same laws used against Boko Haram.

    The result of the law used to shut down hate-speech, shuts down political speech.

    Oh but that’s Cameroon, you’re all civilised in America right?

    Well what happened when YouTube decided to crackdown on “hate-speech”? It employed algorithms which essentially shut down the income for a large number of channels which were about discussing the news.

    Feminist, anti racist, anti terrorism? Well you can’t exactly program an algorithm to say whose on the right side of any issue – so guess what, your issues which you agree matter?

    Now you don’t get to discuss them anymore – at least not if you’re planning to make any money off of YouTube doing so.

    And that is why I think what is happening in Cameroon relates here – because you have a crowd of, excuse my language, fucking idiots arguing for censorship during the presidency of a man who thinks freedom of speech shouldn’t cover criticising him.

    They think they’re the resistance, but they’re providing the arguments to shut any resistance down, arguments which have been and are used elsewhere for that exact purpose.

  12. Jenny Haniver
    Posted September 20, 2017 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    Your comment calls to mind an interview I heard the other day on KQED FM with the psychologist Jean Tweng, who recently published “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood,” in which she speaks about the need for “safe spaces” in this generational group, and this need is apparently even stronger than the millenials’ need for safe spaces. She connects the particular traits of this generation, not only to parenting styles, but to the ubiquity of smart phones, which seem to serve as a replacement umbilical cord. I haven’t read her book and have not made a judgment on her hypotheses, but from what I heard, it certainly sounds plausible — and scary. She noted that millenials have now turned the word “adult” into a gerund, so we now have the word “adulting,” and sometimes millenials get tired of “adulting.” Soon, everyone will go around and go through life surrounded by their own virtual womb.

    • Jenny Haniver
      Posted September 20, 2017 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

      I meant to place this under comment 10 @ “Randy schenk”.

      • Randy schenck
        Posted September 20, 2017 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

        It scars me when I’m thinking like a Psychologist. Maybe I have this all wrong?

    • Diane G.
      Posted September 20, 2017 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

      “…sometimes millenials get tired of “adulting.””

      Don’t we all. 😉

  13. TJR
    Posted September 20, 2017 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    The questions are quite leading.

    “The speaker is known for making offensive and hurtful statements”

    “speech or expression of viewpoints that are offensive or biased against certain groups of people”

    Just stating flat out that they *are* offensive etc, not just that some people perceive them to be.

    • ploubere
      Posted September 20, 2017 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

      Good point. That, to me, makes the survey results questionable. I’m surprised they would make such a fundamental error.

  14. Posted September 20, 2017 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    I have a feeling that part of this might be do to the general ignorance of college students.
    So if one asked them:
    “Should people who are guilty of what others consider to be hateful speech be punished by the gov’t with either fine or imprisonment?” I would hope that the vast majority would say “no”. To most of these students the phrase ‘have the right to..’ is equivalent to “should someone etc…”

  15. Pablo
    Posted September 20, 2017 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    Since the 1980’s children have been taught that crying and finger pointing will summon an authority figure who will make the discomfort go away. Is it any wonder that young adults would tend to be authoritarian?

  16. Posted September 20, 2017 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    I wonder whether this also has to do with the very real sensation of being powerless and unimportant, of not mattering (also consider the slogan “Black Lives Matter”).

    It’s simply true that nobody is worth anything. Whether people vote or not, or protest or not, it makes no difference at all. A generation is now growing up with the experience that even their social surrounding on social media is fragile. They can be kicked out or blocked and it makes no difference whatsoever. It’s like a Global Village where you get the gossip and the appearance of social ties, but when someone leaves the village, disappears or drops dead, nobody notices and it makes no difference anyway.

    What does this have to do with free speech? In two ways: the first, people internalize values that, essentially, ensure their social media survival. Those who seem most “virtuos” can feel more secure from the witch hunters, and so they adopt and defend the tribe’s perceived values which also get extreme and extremer over time (because everyone wants to be sure).

    The second reason is that everyone sees that debate, or discussion or telling the truth has no practical value anymore. Because we can no longer assume that the truth will win out in the end, I think, many now come to believe that “meta-discourse” tactics are the only way to go forward: shutting people down, smearing, spreading memes, fake news, emotional blackmail and so on. This, too, is rooted in uncertainty and powerlessness.

    There’s now a republican party that can basically say anything. Even the most naked lies still seem to do the job for them. Consider someone like PZ, who has spread the most malicious, outright lies on other people, where he himself knows they aren’t true and what tremendous effort it was to counteract it.

    While I can relate and sympathise to some degree, I’m of course categorically opposed to curb people’s freedom of expression, except in a few instances of warranted restraint.

    • Diane G.
      Posted September 20, 2017 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

      That makes a lot of sense.


  17. Posted September 20, 2017 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  18. Posted September 20, 2017 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    A big problem with trying to outlaw hate speech is that such a law would suffer from the same subjectivity and consequent potential for abuse as United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s principle of “Perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly (defining it) but I know it when I see it.”

  19. Posted September 21, 2017 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    “An obvious reason for this [favoring restricting speech] is because Democrats have a stronger tradition of favoring the underdogs and the oppressed than do Republicans, and feel that banning speech that attacks those groups is a moral thing to do. But that admirable tendency is being expressed in the wrong ways, for censorship of opposing viewpoints is not part of the liberal agenda, either….”

    That may be the motivation of some Democrats, but I think you are being overly generous. The underlying problem is not that these students are misguided liberals, it’s that they aren’t liberal in any meaningful sense at all. They are authoritarians.

    Yes, many Republicans are authoritarians, too. That desire and willingness to control others, regardless of motivation, is the real threat to classical liberalism. Unfortunately, it seems prevalent among those controlling both major parties in the U.S.

    “While there may be people reading this post that aren’t worried by this trend, I think most of us are, and we have to speak up against the bowdlerizers, censors, shouter-downers, and Nazi-punchers. Who wants to live in a country where multiple viewpoints are not allowed to be expressed?”

    Hear, hear.

  20. Rachel
    Posted September 21, 2017 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    Not arguing with anything you or this study reveal about the Left. Just wanted to add that I would hardly call the Right defenders of free speech; they just attack it in a less visible and more insidious manner:

  21. Posted September 21, 2017 at 1:37 pm | Permalink


  22. Posted September 23, 2017 at 10:02 pm | Permalink

    A critique of Villasenor’s survey methodology.
    Quoting from the above:
    “The way the survey results have been presented are “malpractice” and “junk science” and “it should never have appeared in the press”, according to Cliff Zukin, a former president of the American Association of Public Opinion Polling. Villasenor, it turns out, is not a pollster or even a social scientist; he is an electrical engineer. And his survey was not administered to a randomly selected group of college students nationwide, what statisticians call a “probability sample”. Instead, it was given to an opt-in online panel of people who identified as current college students.”

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