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Free Speech Support Remains Rocky on Campus

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The latest Gallup/Knight Foundation survey is being cited in certain circles as evidence that there’s no problem in terms of respect for open discussion and free speech on college campuses. That’s pretty remarkable given the actual findings of the survey. Matthew Yglesias of Vox, for instance, somehow managed the other day to reference the 2016 survey, without mentioning the deterioration in findings in the now-available 2017 survey.

What sort of deterioration? Glad you asked. According to the 2017 Knight survey, “Sixty-one percent of students, up from 54% in the prior survey, strongly agree or agree that the climate on their campus prevents some people from saying things they believe because others might find them offensive.”

That’s the students themselves saying that it’s becoming more difficult to voice unpopular opinions on campus.

The survey is by no means a complete horror show. For example, only a small minority (10 percent) endorse using violence against speakers whose views they dislike. So there’s that. A larger minority of 37 percent thinks shouting down opposing views is acceptable. It’s not, in case I have to make that clear.

By and large, the survey seems to reveal support for free speech as a generic ideal, but much less tolerance for views that many college students actually dislike.

The survey conclusion reads, in part:

College students generally endorse First Amendment ideals in the abstract. The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump’s candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is “always acceptable.”

Why does this matter? Because college students graduate and become adults. If they bring into the adult world an intolerance for dissenting views, that’s something with which we’ll all have to grapple.

Full survey here.

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