BY JOHN K. WILSON
A new Gallup survey released today, sponsored by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Newseum Institute, shows that college students support free speech and open debate more than other adults in America, but they often make exceptions to their support for 1st Amendment rights.
In the survey’s key finding, 78% of students favor having colleges “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” (including 72% of Democrats and 84% of Republicans. Among adults, only 66% favor an open learning environment (equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans).
This is an encouraging result, one that refutes the common myth that today’s college students are coddled snowflakes demanding censorship.
College students are much more likely than other adults to think that free speech rights have gotten stronger in the past 20 years, and Democrats believe it more than Republicans. Republicans are much more likely than Democrats to think that 1st Amendment rights are threatened.
When it comes to “expressing political views that are upsetting or offensive to certain groups,” only 27% support restrictions, with little difference in party ID. However, for “using slurs and other language on campus that is intentionally offensive to certain groups,” 77% of Democrats and 65% of Republicans support restrictions. And 63% would allow colleges to restrict “wearing costumes that stereotype certain racial or ethnic groups” (72% of Democrats and 56% of Republicans), which is a rather shocking level of support for in loco parentis policies.
A headline about the survey, in the Washington Post, mistakenly interprets these inconsistencies as “College students seek balance on free speech and hate speech.” This is an old story: free speech for me, but not for thee. It’s not a question of achieving balance; it’s an issue of people on the left and the right and the center supporting freedom in general, but not for those with views they dislike.
The survey asked, “student protesters on some campuses attempted to prevent members of the media from reporting on their protest. Do you think students should or should not be able to prevent reporters from covering protests held on college campuses?” Disturbingly, 28% of college students (and 21% of other adults) actually said yes to this question. Although this is a highly biased and inaccurate way of describing the University of Missouri protest, it’s a troubling response nonetheless. What this survey indicates is that advocates of free speech on campus need to do a much better job of educating students (and the public) about what it means and why it’s important.
Survey research like this doesn’t yield a lot of meaningful results about the actual state of free speech on campus. For example, a question like “the climate on my campus prevents some people from saying things they believe because others might ﬁnd them offensive” provides pointless results because a campus climate is not the same as repression. In fact, free speech advocates point to climate as one reason why censorship isn’t needed to reduce hateful speech.
The survey also asked, “When it comes to people living in the United States who practice different religious beliefs, is our society too accommodating, about right or not accommodating enough?” Adults are far more likely than college students to say “too accommodating” (40% vs. 10%). 66% of Democrats on campus (but only 33% of Republicans) say our society is not accommodating enough of different religious beliefs. This is reflected in the Donald Trump movement and the broad support among Republicans for banning Muslims. Once again, there’s a general endorsement of the 1st Amendment in America, especially when you think your rights are being infringed upon, but not willingness to provide those rights to people you dislike.
According to the survey, only 39% of black college students, compared to 70% of white college students, think that freedom of assembly is secure. This right also reflects the biggest racial gap among adults, 45% for blacks vs. 62% for whites. This seems to be a reference to assembly as the right to protest, especially the recent Black Lives Matter protests on campuses.
50% of college students, when asked “How would you rate the job Americans do at seeking out and listening to differing viewpoints from their own — very good, good, fair, poor or very poor?” say poor or very poor, compared to 39% of adults. And that refusal to listen to other viewpoints translates into a refusal to support the rights of people with other viewpoints.
So what does this survey mean for those of us who want to see stronger protections for 1st Amendment rights on college campuses? It shows there is a very broad base of support among college students, and even all adults, for our general vision of freedom on campus, but that support does not go very deep. Jump into a controversial topic such as hate speech or religious tolerance, and many people will abandon their general belief in free speech. That means it’s best to keep the debate on campus free speech at a very general level, and not try to pass measures that explicitly allow hate speech or support the rights of religious minorities. And any effort at increasing free speech needs to include the right of assembly, to engage in protests, in order to help gain support from black students who are the group on campus most skeptical of absolutist approaches to free speech because they bear the burden of those slurs and insults.
But the survey also reveals an extraordinarily high level of support among Republicans for 1st Amendment rights on campus, even thought this support is not very deep once you get specific. State Rep. Daniel, R-Knoxville, learned this when he proposed the “Tennessee Student Free Speech Protection Act,” and had to withdraw the bill after telling a fellow Republican that it would protect the speech of ISIS recruiters on campus. Meanwhile, a bill in Tennessee is moving forward that would ban state funding at the University of Tennessee for promoting Sex Week, gender-neutral pronouns, or the promoting or demotion of any religion.
There is an excellent opportunity today to try to change campus policies and practices in very broad terms to support greater free expression on campus, as long as these changes occur on a very theoretical level and don’t get too specific about any of the actual cases where free speech is threatened. Because of these inconsistencies in support for free speech, it seems likely that the best time to change campus policies is when there are no major controversies surrounding disliked beliefs. So advocates for free speech need to be the most aggressive and persistent when freedom of expression seems least endangered, if we want to have protections in campus policies in place when they are most needed.
The best step in achieving these changes, I believe, is to do for campus conduct codes what the AAUP did for faculty dismissal procedures: create a model code, and then convince most colleges to adopt the AAUP’s model language in their own policies. While FIRE has been somewhat effective in its approach to “shame and sue” colleges with restrictive conduct codes, there is always a new set of administrators with little concern for the 1st Amendment who are anxious to tinker with conduct codes by adding more and more policies to cover every conceivable kind of wrongdoing under the doctrine of risk management. Convincing colleges to adopt good conduct codes, and keep them that way, will require a model code supported by a broad range of organizations. That’s what I’m aiming to do, and what I hope others will join me in pursuing.
This Knight Foundation survey shows that we have strong support, on and off campus, for the goal of free speech, even if most people are too quick to make exceptions for the rights of those with views they dislike. We must seize this opportunity to transform policies on college campuses to promote greater freedom of expression.