Free speech in colleges: a new report shows that students generally favor gutting the First Amendment

A report at Medium was highlighted in the New York Times article below (click on screenshot), which sent me to the original study on which both articles were based.

I looked at the articles above a few days ago, but have largely forgotten what they said, so I’ll take the conclusions below from the original Gallup/Knight Foundation Survey (go to short article by clicking on screenshot below, or get full pdf here):

The study, also supported by the Charles Koch Foundation (!) and the Stanton Foundation, is based on telephone interviews with 3014 US college students (four-year schools only)—a response rate of 47% of those contacted who had previously completed a web survey. I’ll highlight just what I see as the major/most interesting conclusions.

Half the students don’t trust the media. Trust has, however, increased among Democrats in the last two years, and by 20%, though remaining unchanged among Republicans. I suppose Democrats, not trusting the government, have to trust the news, but I really have no idea why the big increase happened. Here are the data (“HCBU means “historically black colleges and universities, which were singled out for black students):

Students think that free speech is important to a democracy, but so is “promoting an inclusive society that is welcoming to diverse groups”. The figures are about equal; apparently the students are oblivious to the fact that these two issues may conflict with each other (see speech code data below).

When given a choice about which of the two above is more important, students opt for inclusivity than protecting free speech. Look at the big disparity between men and women, with men taking a far more positive stand on free speech while women favor having a diverse and inclusive society. As expected, blacks value inclusion and diversity more than whites, as do Democrats compared to Republicans.

Extending the above to campus environments, students prefer, by a large margin an “open” campus environment that allows offensive speech compared to a “positive” environment that prohibits certain speech. The only slight outlier is Republicans, who are less keen on speech prohibition. This is good news, as although most students value diversity over free speech, they don’t see it that way when it comes to the college environment they experience. I hope this means that they realize that a true learning environment is one with less suppression of speech.

Most students think that “hate speech” shouldn’t be protected by the First Amendment. Note that they’re not talking about campuses here, but in general. That means that most students think that the courts’ interpretation of the First Amendment—which allows “hate speech” that is not harassing in the workplace nor poses a clear and immediate danger to people’s safety—is WRONG. In other words, they’re more censorious than the law itself. Note again the difference between men and women, which is larger than between whites and blacks. Even Republicans are more on the side of not protecting hate speech than protecting it, though the split, compared to that of other groups, is more even.

Finally, substantial majorities of students support campus codes that restrict language or costumes that are offensive or “stereotype certain racial or ethnic groups”, but fewer are in favor of restrictive “offensive” political viewpoints (e.g., those on my own campus who want to ban Steve Bannon’s upcoming debate):


Private colleges, of course, can pretty much do what they want vis-à-vis speech codes, but note that a majority of students over all universities (and there are more students in public than private universities) favor restrictions that violate the First Amendment. While colleges should encourage civility and comity among members of different groups, what bothers me is the preponderance of students who want “hate speech” restricted by the government—a violation of the First Amendment. I think students need an education about the First Amendment as part of their first-year orientation activities.

The report contains a lot more data and many other intriguing questions posed to the subjects, but I’ll leave you to read about that on your own.


  1. GBJames
    Posted March 19, 2018 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    The big increase in trust of the media among people in the reality-based community stems, I think, from an increased commitment to aggressive news reporting since the 2016 election from organizations like the NY Times and the Washington Post. We’ve also seen somewhat better reporting from national television news organizations with the obvious exception of Faux News.

    • Posted March 19, 2018 at 10:52 am | Permalink

      Yes, the MSM has clearly responded to the claims of “fake news” by being more careful and diligent. These are all good things but don’t outweigh the damage done by the “fake news” accusations. All our institutions are being stressed by those who see some advantage in destroying them.

      • GBJames
        Posted March 19, 2018 at 10:57 am | Permalink

        All that’s true. I’m just accounting for the uptick that PCC[E] identified in trust of the media.

        • Posted March 19, 2018 at 11:03 am | Permalink

          I’m agreeing with the up-tick and believe it is explained by MSM’s increase in quality as a reaction to the “fake news” accusations.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted March 19, 2018 at 11:32 am | Permalink

      I agree — although I tend to be chary of agreeing with that which conforms to my own pre-existing biases.

      I have noticed that, apparently in response to the “fake news” claims coming from the administration, the leading news sources have taken to having three or four (and sometimes more) bylines on their news-breaking articles, and to confirming those pieces with multiple sources.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted March 19, 2018 at 11:42 am | Permalink

        Let me add that I know Jerry and many here have had a beef with the op-ed pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post — and I certainly have a beef withe editorial stance of The Wall Street Journal — but the news divisions of those papers, and of many other legacy media, have been tip-top in the Age of Trump.

    • Craw
      Posted March 20, 2018 at 9:34 am | Permalink

      Have you noticed all the big retraction from CNN, NBC, etc?

  2. Posted March 19, 2018 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    I might be reading the graphic wrong, but isn’t college students’ preferred campus environment an open one rather than a “positive” one for all subgroups? Looking at the Gallup document, I think this is the proper interpretation, although they note that, “Most major subgroups have become at least slightly less supportive of an open environment than they were in 2016.”

    • Posted March 19, 2018 at 11:00 am | Permalink

      Yes, that was an error on my part, and I’ve fixed it.

    • Historian
      Posted March 19, 2018 at 11:01 am | Permalink

      “Extending the above to campus environments, students prefer, by a large margin, prohibition of speech—creating a “positive environment”—compared to an “open” campus environment that allows offensive speech. The only outlier is Republicans, who care more for an open campus environment than a ‘positive learning environment’”

      I agree with Ed Kroc. Unless I’m reading the chart incorrectly, it says that 70% prefer allowing offensive speech while only 29% favor banning it.

      Yet 64% do not believe the First Amendment should protect hate speech while 35% believe it should. Why this apparent contradiction? I speculate that perhaps one explanation is that students confuse hate speech with hate crimes. Perhaps on an unconscious level they believe that if hate crimes deserve harsher penalties than non-hate crimes then hate speech, which may promote hate crimes, should be banned. This is just a thought

    • glen1davidson
      Posted March 19, 2018 at 11:05 am | Permalink

      Isn’t that what he said?

      students prefer, by a large margin an “open” campus environment that allows offensive speech compared to a “positive” environment that prohibits certain speech.

      Glen Davidson

      • glen1davidson
        Posted March 19, 2018 at 11:06 am | Permalink

        I guess not, at least not at first.

  3. rom
    Posted March 19, 2018 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    I think where people struggle is allowing speech that will incite violence.

    Not with speech that is designed to incite violence by the supporters of the speech, that is a clear no,no. But speech that is designed to incite violence in the opposition.

    Some might argue that the opposition should be adult enough to not respond with violence, but clearly there are those that are not adult enough.

  4. Peter
    Posted March 19, 2018 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    PCC(E) writes:
    “students prefer, by a large margin, prohibition of speech—creating a “positive environment”—compared to an “open” campus environment that allows offensive speech.”
    Next he cites poll data that say exactly the opposite!!!
    What am I missing here?

    • Peter
      Posted March 19, 2018 at 11:00 am | Permalink

      The article at the website of the Knight Foundation to which PCC(E) links says this:
      “Students continue to prefer campuses be open learning environments that allow for a wide range of views to be heard than to prefer environments that prohibit certain types of potentially harmful speech, though not as widely as they did in 2016.”
      It seems to me that PCC(E) is not doing justice to the complexities of the data.
      For an alternative take see also this article form the Washington Post:
      The ‘campus free speech crisis’ is a myth. Here are the facts

    • Posted March 19, 2018 at 11:01 am | Permalink

      As I said above, this is a mistake that I’ve now fixed. It’s interesting to see the difference between “what I value most: inclusion or free speech” and “what kind of campus do I want to inhabit?”.

      • Peter
        Posted March 19, 2018 at 11:41 am | Permalink

        It is interesting how differences in question wording lead to very different results.
        The following two questions seem to ask about the same thing but elicited very different answers:
        1. If you had to choose, which do you think is more important, diversity and inclusive society vs protecting free speech rights.
        Here most respondents (53% vs 46%) favor diversity and inclusive society.
        2. If you had to choose, do you think it is more important for colleges to 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, or to 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?
        Here most respondents (70% vs 29%) favor open environment/allow offensive speech over positive learning environment/prohibit certain speech.
        Maybe this is what lead PCC(E) to make the error – now corrected – when describing the data.
        PCC(E) is right that sometimes free speech conflicts with the promotion of an inclusive society that is welcoming to diverse groups. The problem though is that toleration of offensive speech is really the acid test for once commitment to free speech. As the hate speech question in the survey shows, students are much more ambivalent about free speech than their answers to the second question cited above suggests. To me the really important (practical) issue is that hate speech, once you go beyond Nazi stuff and racism, is really a fuzzy idea. So enforcement of restrictions on free speech in the name of preventing hate speech will often lead to the suppression of speech that offends (like critique of religion = hatred of believer).

  5. glen1davidson
    Posted March 19, 2018 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    Of course even using the term “hate speech” is an attempt to make a different category of speech that is different from “ours,” one that isn’t as deserving of protection because it’s supposedly negative and “hateful.” If they asked instead, should opponents, even those who are more extreme, be guaranteed free speech like everyone else, the numbers might be a lot more positive for free speech.

    But I wouldn’t fault the poll for using the term “hate speech,” because it is a term often used to drive a wedge between actual free speech and speech that is “free” only for those who are approved. And of course “hate speech” is a slippery concept readily modified to include whatever speech the powerful don’t like to hear.

    Anything could be “hate speech,” from pro-capitalist rhetoric to leftist criticisms of capitalism, and on to any kind of objective data that runs contrary to the “narrative of inclusiveness.” Thus Christina Hoff Sommers’ careful arguments end up being interrupted and truncated by the mindless chants of those smugly out to censor all “hate speech.”

    Glen Davidson

    • Posted March 19, 2018 at 11:08 am | Permalink

      I agree. I hate the “hate speech” label. It is one of several special categories that have been invented in recent decades: labeling a crime as “terrorism”, trying a child as an adult. I expect I could think of a few more with a little time.

      • Nobody Special
        Posted March 19, 2018 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

        The Brittish Luddite ‘frame wreckers’ of the 18th/19th centuries were labelled as domestic terrorists, and the trying and hanging of children as adults went on for centuries.

    • GBJames
      Posted March 19, 2018 at 11:22 am | Permalink

      “Hate speech” is to the left what “Fake news” is to the right these days. Both are ways of saying “I don’t like that”.

      • Nobody Special
        Posted March 19, 2018 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

        I think that the proper phrasproperYou can’t say that because SHUT UP!”

        • Nobody Special
          Posted March 19, 2018 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

          ‘…proper phrase…..’
          Damn this ‘smart’ phone!

    • Jamie
      Posted March 19, 2018 at 11:29 am | Permalink

      If I imagine taking this poll myself, at this point I have to ask, “and how, exactly, do you define ‘hate speech’? I cannot answer the question without a clear definition.” But this apparently doesn’t stop most people from responding.

      • Posted March 19, 2018 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

        That’s the problem I have with polling on subjects like these. The questions are vague because there’s no accepted and known vocabulary for the subject among those polled. I am willing to accept the possibility that a carefully defined poll could tell us something but I don’t see anything here that makes me think this poll rises to that level.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted March 19, 2018 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

      I think that, as Potter Stewart said about obscenity, we all feel we know “hate speech” when we see it. But (again, as Justice Stewart observed regarding obscenity) there is no viable legal definition of that term that would exclude protected speech from its ambit. And even if there were, punishing hate speech would have a “chilling effect” on constitutionally protected speech. There is, thus, no viable alternative to granting “hate speech” full constitutional protection.

      • Posted March 19, 2018 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

        Hate speech is definable only in terms of the emotional effect on people that hear it, which obviously depends on each listener. In my opinion that makes it untenable as part of public policy.

    • Posted March 19, 2018 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

      Denying that hate speech is a thing is itself hate speech.

  6. Ken Kukec
    Posted March 19, 2018 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    Chrissake, I remember when youth was all about exploring the boundaries of freedom. Looking out at college campuses, sometimes I feel like a motherless child, to sample Richie Havens.

  7. dabertini
    Posted March 19, 2018 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    They are more concerned with gutting what is necessary. Why not start by gutting the second amendment? Guns can kill, words not so much.

    • Posted March 20, 2018 at 10:03 am | Permalink

      Well, just yesterday, on my local NPR station, I heard a local Native American “community leader” state that words he didn’t like were, “violence” that he endured.

      Change the channel, don’t go to the speech …

  8. Randall Schenck
    Posted March 19, 2018 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    I think the students should be asked something vary fashionable today – the NDA, Non-Disclosure Agreement. Trump is a big fan of these and uses them on everyone, from regular employees to girl friends. Would that be a slap at your free speech rights or is that just an inclusive environment protection. Also, should the government get to determine what gets into the news, similar to other countries such as Russia. Just to keep some portions of the community from being offended. Let us question them about some real world ideas instead of just what goes on at school. Sometimes I don’t think their opinions of important issues at school is the way to do these surveys. After all, the issue of free speech and the first amendment is much larger than just who gets to speak at school.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted March 19, 2018 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

      sorry….word is very.

  9. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted March 19, 2018 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

    what bothers me is the preponderance of students who want “hate speech” restricted by the government—a violation of the First Amendment. I think students need an education about the First Amendment as part of their first-year orientation activities.

    I interpret the response as that they do know what it does, but want to amend the Amendment.

    • Brian salkas
      Posted March 20, 2018 at 1:24 am | Permalink

      I think you are unfortunately correct. To use Jonathan Haidts words, we need to talk more to peoples elephants and less to their riders. Logical arguments that free speech is important will not be as effective as emotional rhetoric.

  10. Brian salkas
    Posted March 20, 2018 at 1:20 am | Permalink

    I have a hypothesis. I think that when asked in the form of a question, republicans are more likely than leftists to say they are supportive of free speech, but equally likely or even more likely that liberals to oppose speech that challenges their views in real life. This is just my attempt to reconcile these poll results with the research that shows that conservatives are less supportive of free speech than liberals. in other words, what people say and how they act are different, and these differences correlate with political views.

  11. Posted March 20, 2018 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    Here’s what I am still awaiting:

    Can someone, anyone, define: “hate speech”? (Or at least define it as anything other than “speech I don’t personally like or agree with.”)

    I recently listened (it was hard) to a panel discussion (circle-jerk) on our local NPR station where the panel lamented “hate speech”.

    I about fell out of my seat when I heard the moderator actually ask, “what is hate speech? What should be prohibited?”.

    Finally, I’ll hear what these people think it is! The silence was interesting. There was plenty of metaphorical shuffling of feet and actual hemming and hawing; but no one had the guts to say what they meant by the phrase.

    This was particularly telling in my opinion. They are either incompetent (can’t define it) or dishonest (are unwilling to say what they mean).

    However, I have been informed that an African American woman, walking through the school where my wife teaches, yelling at the top of her lungs, “I hate all white people!” is incapable of emitting hate speech.

    This is a meaningless phrase.

    • GBJames
      Posted March 20, 2018 at 10:04 am | Permalink

      There’s a third possibility besides “incompetent” and “dishonest”. There is also “naive”… they simply may never have thought about this. They’ve just been going along with “the narrative” without realizing that they couldn’t define it if the subject came up.

      Maybe that’s a form of incompetence after all.

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