Hit & Run

Study: 44% of Students Incorrectly Think the First Amendment Does Not Protect Hate Speech

"The majority of students appear to prefer an environment...that shelters them from offensive views."

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Student censorship
Wavebreakmedia Ltd

It is not just a matter of wanting authority figures to prohibit other people from engaging in offensive speech: A near-majority of surveyed college students think hate speech is already outside the bounds of legal protection.

A new study conducted by the Brookings Institution's John Villasenor, a professor at the University of California-Los Angeles, asked 1,500 students at four-year universities about their views on the free speech, and the results are unsettling.

The greatest number, 44 percent answered "no" when asked if the First Amendment protects hate speech. Just 39 percent of students answered correctly and 16 percent answered "don't know."

Men were more likely than women to say hate speech was protected (51 percent vs. 31 percent.) And while conservative students are often thought to be more in favor of free speech than their liberal counterparts—at least in the present campus censorship wars—the study suggests this reputation is undeserved. Just 44 percent of self-identified Republicans said that hate speech was protected by the First Amendment, compared with 39 percent of Democrats and 40 percent of independents.

A striking majority of surveyed students—51 percent—thought "shouting so that the audience cannot hear" was a valid tactic for opposing a controversial speaker. Violence was acceptable to 19 percent of respondents.

"Across most categories, and in the aggregate, the majority of students appear to prefer an environment in which their institution is expected to create an environment that shelters them from offensive views," wrote Villasenor. "The exceptions are among Republicans and Independents, though even in those categories nearly half of the students still expressed a preference for the more sheltered environment."

It's not just a matter of preference, however. Given that a majority of students incorrectly say the First Amendment doesn't protect hate speech, or that they don't know whether it does, we must also consider sheer ignorance as an explanation for the waves of student-led shut downs on American campuses in recent years.

Teenagers are somehow making it through 12 years of primary education without absorbing the most basic civics lesson: The founding documents of the United States of America zealously protect people who make offensive statements from censorship at the hands of government officials or violent mobs.