Too many students feel afraid to speak honestly on campus for fear of offending someone, a new national survey of college students says.
University censorship regimes are teaching some students not only to live with but to embrace the conformism of thought inculcated through university speech codes, speaker dis-invitations, “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” and campus shout-downs of invited speakers, the report demonstrates.
On the one hand, the new report from the Knight Foundation shows that a bare majority of students still pay lip-service to the sanctity of the First Amendment, which public universities are constitutionally obligated to uphold on their campuses. The report found that 53% of surveyed students support protecting our rights to speak and disagree. The survey also revealed that 46% of students deem it more important to promote inclusion on campus.
The report highlights the principled divisions over free speech versus inclusion that surface when we view the survey answers through the lens of a number of demographic factors: race, sex, political party, religion, and sexual orientation.
Although 58% of students opined that “hate speech” should continue to receive First Amendment protection, 41% take the opposite view. Sixty percent of college women surveyed believe that efforts to promote and enforce an inclusive society are more important than fulfilling the First Amendment. Only 28% of men share this view, while 71% of college men support free speech over inclusion. A minority of women (41%) concur.
Women are not alone in this opinion. African-American college students, more than those of other races, are more inclined to believe that inclusion should trump free speech. More than six in 10 African-American students believe that fostering inclusion and diversity should take priority over upholding the First Amendment. Forty-nine percent of Hispanic college students agree, whereas 42% of white students endorse this opinion. Fifty-eight percent of white students, and 50% of Hispanic students, place free speech as primary, with inclusion second.
There is also a religious dimension to the survey results: Eighty-one percent of Mormons, 71% of white evangelical Protestants, 64% of white mainline Protestants, and 62% of Catholic students believe that upholding the First Amendment is more imperative than promoting inclusion. In contrast, 65% of Jewish students, 60% of students who profess Eastern faiths such Hinduism or Buddhism, and 54% of religiously unaffiliated students believe that inclusion is more critical.
When it comes to offensive or “hate speech,” most students appear to agree with the Supreme Court’s rulings declaring such speech to be protected by the First Amendment. The survey defined hate speech as “attacks [on] people based on their race, religion, gender identity or sexual orientation.” Nearly 60% of surveyed college students say that such speech should be protected, whereas 41% disagree.
However, opinions vary on this according to gender: 53% of college women opine that offensive speech should not be protected free speech, whereas 74% of college men answered that such speech should be protected by the First Amendment.
There is also a racial gap on the question: 62% of white collegians believe that offensive speech should be protected by the First Amendment, whereas 48% of black students concur. Fifty-one percent of black students deny that hate speech should be protected. Fifty-two percent of Hispanic students affirm First-Amendment protection of hate speech, while 47% do not.
There is also a significant difference in opinion based on sexual orientation. Sixty-four percent of heterosexual college students agree that hate speech should be protected, compared to 35% of gay and lesbian students.
Fifty-three percent of white students believe that it is never acceptable to attempt to bar speakers on campus from expressing their views while 41% of Hispanic, 38% of black, and 37% of Asian Pacific Islander students concur.
Sixty-five percent of white male students believe shouting down speakers (the “heckler’s veto”) is never acceptable; 45% of white female students agree.
Most analyses of this new survey data pay insufficient attention to the one conclusion on which an overwhelming majority of college students agree: Sixty-eight percent of collegians “largely agree” that the campus climate today prevents some students from being able truly to speak their minds for fear of offending someone. Only 31% disagree.
Conformism of thought, and efforts to enforce it, have become the norm.
The reality on too many campuses, of which this poll shows bipartisan recognition, is both the most alarming and the most promising result to be gleaned from this survey.
It is alarming for obvious reasons: Universities live and breathe on the basis of a robust protection of free speech, even and especially unpopular, or “offensive” speech. Without freedom of speech and inquiry, universities degenerate into ideological echo chambers, which is the opposite of what a marketplace of ideas requires.
American democracy likewise depends on the First Amendment. As I have written, the black civil rights movement in the 1950s and ‘60s would never have succeeded without the First Amendment’s protection of “offensive” speech (more than a few southern communities during this period sought to silence the Rev. Martin Luther King’s speech because it was deemed “offensive” by these communities).
But in showing that a strong majority of collegians believe that some students can’t speak their minds on campus these days, the poll points us toward a possible reconciliation of the free-speech/inclusion dilemma.
How? Through restoring genuine civic education, through which all students, regardless of political persuasion, would come to see that their rights, no less than others’, depend ineluctability on a content- or viewpoint-neutral First Amendment.
That our college students are not receiving such an education is demonstrated irrefutably by recent polling drawn from questions on the USCIS Citizenship Test. This test is passed by 92% of immigrants applying for citizenship. Passage requires getting only six out of 10 multiple-choice questions correct. But, as I wrote here, only 36% of native-born Americans can get even six out of 10 questions right.
Worse, and directly relevant to the free-speech poll under examination, there is a wide age gap in the civic knowledge of native-born Americans. Seventy-four percent of senior citizens can pass the Citizenship Test. But only 20% of native-born Americans under 45 can even get six out of 10 questions correct.
Think about that for a moment: Eighty percent of under-45 native-born Americans are strangers in their own country, bereft of needed knowledge regarding what their rights and duties are as citizens of a self-governing polity. They have been given no instruction in why all human beings are equal, in why we are born with the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and in why and how we established a limited government.
Given our civic illiteracy, is it any wonder that growing numbers of college students see no reason to uphold the First Amendment anymore?
And if that is the case, one possible remedy is this: Require all high-school as well as college students to spend a semester diving into our country’s fundamental documents, which still define us today: the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
We can’t protect what we don’t understand. So long as civic education in this country continues to decline, expect more assaults on our core principles of individual liberty and limited government.