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.
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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