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One Question In A Poll Of College Students Crystallizes The Debate Over Free Speech


Free speech just isn’t as cool as it used to be, according to a Gallup and the Knight Foundation study of college students’ views on the subject.

The news isn’t great for this bedrock principle in America’s higher-learning institutions. College students overwhelmingly support free speech in the abstract, but when it comes to the real world, they are accepting of restrictions on it, which is in effect, not very supportive of free speech. And the numbers have gotten worse for speech on a lot of fronts since 2016.

Almost 90 percent of students say protection of free speech is extremely or very important to American democracy, but two-thirds also believe hate speech shouldn’t be protected by the First Amendment, and 83 percent support free-speech zones on campus, to contain pre-approved protests and distribution of messages. Not exactly the open inquiry we used to love.

There is some good news. In question after question, it appears the forces that are found shouting down speakers like Christina Hoff Sommers or burning Berkeley or attacking Charles Murray at Middlebury are a very loud minority. “Nine in 10 students say violence is ‘never acceptable'” to counter speech and a solid majority of 62 percent believe shouting down speakers is “never acceptable.” This leaves too-large percentages who think violence and shouting down are fine, but the vast majority of college students are in favor of traditional forms of protest without shutting down speech.

This vast majority, however, as we’ve seen in practice on many campuses, allows itself to be subject to the whims of the loud and sometimes violent minority. Again, there’s good and bad news. More than 70 percent of students don’t approve disinviting speakers “merely because of student opposition,” but 69 percent are in favor of canceling planned speeches in the face of violent threats or the chance of violent protests.

Students also seem to have some self-awareness about campus bias and whose speech is chilled. Only 15 percent say campus is ideologically diverse, and by more than 20 points, more students think political liberals are free to express themselves (92 percent) than political conservatives (69 percent). Interestingly, conservatives students are both perceived as less able to voice their opinions on campus but also the most optimistic group about campus speech. Some 62 percent of students said, “The climate on my campus prevents some people from saying things they believe because others might find them offensive,” up from 54 percent in 2016. Every subgroup saw the same increase except Republicans, who moved the other direction by 9 points.

The reasons for this are unclear. Researchers suggest it may have something to do with the party in power in the White House emboldening conservatives. I’d bet there’s also new recognition that the speech problem on campus is being seen as a problem as flashpoints like Berkely and Middlebury make it so obvious.

A New Question On The Survey: Free Speech Or Diversity?

There’s one question in the survey that crystallizes the problem with how we think about free speech in a pluralistic society these days, and might explain some of free speech’s recent backslide. The question was a new addition to the survey since the 2016 version. Students were asked to express how important they think the values of diversity and inclusion, and free speech, are to American society.

The good news is huge majorities thought both values were important. Eighty-nine percent of students thought protecting free speech rights is extremely or very important. An inclusive, diverse society garnered 83 percent.

But then they were asked to choose.

“When asked to choose which objective is more important to a democracy, college students prioritize promoting an inclusive society that is welcoming of diverse groups over one that protects citizens’ free speech rights, 53 to 46%,” the study finds. “Women, blacks and Democrats are more likely than their counterparts to choose inclusion over free speech.”

The beauty of America is we don’t have to choose. Protecting free speech is literally inclusion. Not protecting free speech rights is literally exclusion of certain viewpoints.

It’s pretty Orwellian to presuppose these values are in conflict or mutually exclusive. Protections of free speech are what makes inclusion and diversity possible. It has always been thus. The world has a rich tradition of leaders who fancy themselves smart enough to determine what the people should and shouldn’t hear, and crack down on unpopular or minority positions or people for society’s “good.” This is not an innovation of modern college campuses.

College administrators and activists of the 21st century may be a more benign form of censor than the most aggressive historical examples, but the spirit and the consequences to speech remain. The brilliance of America’s First Amendment is that it made very clear that this inalienable right was foundational and respect for it should not change with prevailing social attitudes.

In fact, it is the free practice of free-wheeling speech that causes prevailing social attitudes to change. Without a commitment to protection of unpopular speech in the mid-century about, say, American society being more inclusive and diverse, we wouldn’t have gotten to such a state of near-ubiquitous inclusion and diversity that we assume it is in conflict with the very foundational freedom that helped birth it.

There has always been, inherent in our reverence of free speech, an understanding that it necessarily was free for those we loved as well as those we hated, free for those whose views were popular and reviled, free for those who were in the majority and the minority, or it doesn’t work.

Oliver Wendell Holmes put it succinctly: “If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought — not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”

The question that better frames the free speech question as the Founders might have recognized it is the same one from the 2016 version of this survey. This one also asks college students to choose one value over another on college campuses. But this time, it is a “positive environment that would necessarily prohibit some speech” vs. an “open environment that would allow offensive speech.”

Those two scenarios are actually at odds. One cannot have a truly open learning environment while also assuring that everyone on campus remains comfortable. One cannot have a uniformly positive environment for all students without prohibiting certain speech.

Here there is more good news. Students, when asked to choose between these two things, favor an “open” environment over a “positive” one 70-29 percent. That’s a decrease from 2016’s level of 78-22, but still solid. All subgroups chose “open” over the alternative.

Maybe some of those newly optimistic campus conservatives can get back to teaching the formerly fundamental idea that freedom is inclusion. Without that understanding, free speech will continue to suffer, on campus and off.