College Students Weigh Free Speech and Hate Speech

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April 4, 2016; Washington Post

According to a new national study, college students embrace the opportunity to hear and deliver a variety of ideas and viewpoints but would prefer that their schools restrict offensive speech. Still, seventy-eight percent value the importance of having an “open learning environment,” even if offensive or biased speech is allowed, over the alternative of creating a “positive learning environment” where certain speech types are prohibited.

The Knight Foundation and Newseum Institute, partnering with Gallup, have issued the results of a survey of students and adults regarding free speech on campuses. It has determined that, for the most part, college students seek a balance between free speech and hate speech. The survey results follow a spate of protests at colleges, including Yale and the University of Missouri, from students who objected to slurs and ugly words. They have been searching for a way to separate the name calling from free speech, something that this country has wrestled with since the ink on the Constitution was barely dry.

The telephone survey of 3,072 students, age 18 to 24, at four-year colleges was conducted from February 29th to March 15th. The overall sampling error was plus or minus 3 percentage points; for white students it was 4 points, and for black students 9 points. The questions sought to gauge student attitudes about the media and First Amendment freedoms.

The survey also found that students draw a distinction between speech that is politically offensive and expressions that are slurs or promote racial stereotypes:

  • Asked whether colleges should be allowed to restrict political views that are offensive or upsetting to certain groups, 72 percent said no. Seventy-six percent of white students and 59 percent of black students held this view.
  • Overall, 69 percent said colleges should be able to limit the use of slurs and other language that is intentionally offensive to certain groups. Seventy-nine percent of black students and 67 percent of white students endorsed this view.
  • Overall, 63 percent said colleges should be able to restrict wearing of costumes that stereotype certain racial or ethnic groups. A larger share of black students—77 percent—agreed with this statement, compared to 62 percent of white students.

Free speech does cover the guy on the corner yelling, “The college president is a jerk,” but name-calling does not garner admiration for one’s ideological position, nor does it educate people or influence them to change their opinions. In the educational environment, the frustration is understandable; these college students aspire to something many of us desire: a level of respect in discussing ideas and political positions.—Marian Conway

  • Ben

    It is frightening how little our current crop of college students know about free speech or its value, even when it’s offensive. It’s sad to think that this country now indoctrinates our students such that they put the virtue of political correctness above the virtue of free speech. I once heard a military veteran comment on a US citizen who was protesting by burning the US flag — he said “I didn’t go to war and risk my life for that.” But yes — yes! — that’s EXACTLY why you went to war and risked your life! Because, in this country, speech which does not threaten bodily harm is free! No one can forbid you from speaking your mind, no matter how offensive or ugly your ideas may be. My town was once the site of several Ku Klux Klan rallies. As expected from a free speech society, the local police provided protection for the Klan marchers and they were allowed to march and chant as they wished. Forbidding them that right would have been entirely UN-American. The right way to react to such speech is what your Mom or Dad should have taught you: just ignore it. Now, people in my town decided not to ignore it and they organized counter-marches. The result? The Klan loved it and came back the next year and the next. But what would have happened if everyone ignored the march — pretended it wasn’t even happening? The Klan would have looked foolish and irrelevant and left. Which is eventually what happened. Now, I’m not saying you can’t engage in counter-speech — that’s a critical component of free speech. Go ahead and meet speech with which you don’t agree with your own speech. What I am saying is that America was founded on the bedrock principal that no speech, no matter how heinous, should be censored by the authorities or by the public. Again, if you don’t like some speech, then you’re welcome to voice your own, counter opinion. Or you can just ignore the dummy spouting the offensive speech. But you do not get to silence that person. Not in the United States. Leave the censorship to the dictators and tyrants. If we as a country are producing students who do not understand the benefits of free speech — and the costs of it as well and why it’s worth those costs — then we have truly lost a fundamental part of what it means to be American. The thought police will not be far behind and pretty soon they will be censoring you too.