Students Against Free Speech, Political Correctness Run Amok, and Other Findings from Cato's New Survey

Students are split on whether the government should restrict hate speech.


Igor Mojzes

About half of the country's college students (51 percent) believe disrespectful people should be stripped of their free speech rights, while 55 percent of Americans overall think the opposite—that people are entitled to free speech regardless.

That's according to the Cato Institute's new, massive survey of American opinions on free speech. The poll contains plenty of useful information, but I was particularly struck by the stances taken by college students. The results support the idea that civil libertarians should be concerned about the views of young people.

Cato found strong support for keeping hate speech legal among Americans with a college education: 64 percent said the government should not restrict hate speech. But current students were evenly split on the same question. And Americans under the age of 30 were the most likely demographic to say that hate speech is equivalent to violence: 60 percent believed this, compared with 57 percent of senior citizens and just 49 percent of middle-aged Americans.

Students seem to be getting exactly what they want out of college, and what they want is more suppression of offensive speech. Just 30 percent of students oppose bias reporting systems, compared with a majority (though a narrow one: 51 percent) of all Americans. Students were also more likely than Americans overall to think university administrators should oppose offensive Halloween costumes.

Here are five other interesting findings:

There is widespread agreement that political correctness has gone too far. The idea that America has become too politically correct is one of President Donald Trump's talking points, but even about half of Democrats think P.C. is "a big problem." Ninety percent of Republicans and 78 percent of independents agree. Most Americans avoid saying what they really think because other people might find it offensive.

Democrats and Republicans are both intolerant, but in different ways. Conservatives often castigate liberals—especially young liberals—as delicate snowflakes who are easily offended. The college outrage beat provides plenty of support for this view, since students all over the country are frequently involved in efforts to derail conversations that make them uncomfortable. But as Sarah Ruger argued in a recent Inside Higher Ed piece, conservatives are also keen to shut down offensive speech, a version of political correctness that Cato's Alex Nowrasteh has called "patriotic correctness."

Cato's data provide plenty of evidence of this. Republicans are wildly in favor of National Football League teams firing players who refuse to stand for the national anthem (65 percent). Similarly, 54 percent of Republicans think a business executive should lose his job if he burns the American flag. Majorities of Democrats disagreed with both of these positions; instead, 58 percent of Democrats said employers should fire employees who make insensitive comments on Facebook.

People of color think free speech hurts them and helps their enemies. People of color are more inclined to say there should be formal consequences for hateful or offensive speech. One likely reason for that: Black and Hispanic Americans are much more likely than white Americans to believe "free speech does more to protect majority opinions, not minority opinions." Most Black Americans (59 percent) and nearly half of Hispanics (49 percent) agreed with this statement, whereas only 34 percent of white Americans did.

In other words, they think that "free speech" just means defending Milo Yiannopoulos's rights. This suggests to me that civil libertarians should do more to highlight the far-from-rare cases where the censored party belongs to a racial or ethnic minority.

Microaggression theory is really stupid. Cato listed a number of popular examples of microaggressions and asked people of color whether they were offended by them. In most cases, the resounding answer was no. Only one of the examples—saying "you are a credit to your race"—was deemed offensive by a majority of the black people surveyed.

This finding supports Scott Lilienfeld's research on microaggression theory, which characterized the concept as incoherent in its current form. Educational institutions like Oberlin College that are currently training—and even paying—students in microaggression awareness should read the data.

Only the hard left supports violence against nazis. Most Americans do not believe violence is an appropriate response to Nazi ideas. In fact, 68 percent think it's morally impermissible to punch someone just for being a Nazi. A majority of Democrats (56 percent) shared this view. Nazi-punching was more popular among black people than among Latinos and white people, and more popular among millennials than among older Americans. But support for Nazi-punching was under 50 percent for all these subgroups.

Just one subgroup felt differently: strong liberals, 51 percent of whom said punching Nazis was morally acceptable.