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Where Have All the Free Speech Fans Gone?

The big drop in campus support for free speech happened in the '70s and '80s, but the decline hasn't stopped lately.

Starting in the '70s, the General Social Survey has periodically asked Americans if they think someone should have a right to give a racist speech in their community. John Sides has charted the responses over at The Washington Post, dividing the people surveyed into four groups: Americans aged 18 to 25 who have had at least some college education, Americans aged 18 to 25 with no college education, older Americans with at least some college education, and older Americans with no college education. The results are striking:

Washington PostWashington Post

The first thing you'll probably notice is that the percentage of the college-age crowd supporting the racist's freedom of speech has decreased dramatically over those four decades. Another thing you'll notice is that the college kids aren't leading the way so much as they're converging with the non-college crew. But what really leaps out for me is when most of the drop happened. For the people who are actually on campus, the big plunge ended in the late '80s. Things then flattened for a while, sliding slightly but not severely in the 1990s; the decline didn't accelerate again until the 21st century.

This flies in the face of folk memory, which tends to treat the '90s as the first age of political correctness. But it's probably better to remember that period as a time of backlash against political correctness. That first big wave of "P.C. Kids Gone Mad!" stories that hit the national press in 1990 wasn't a sign that pro-censorship sentiments were taking off; it was a sign that more people were resisting those sentiments. When there's a backlash against some social force, many people assume that force is surging, just because they didn't really notice it before. That doesn't mean it's actually on the rise.

But that's not all that happened in the '90s. Sides also charts the percentage of Americans in each group who support free speech for communists. Here the decline in the college crowd isn't as severe—the share supporting the communist's rights is well north of 50 percent—but there's still a noticeable drop at the beginning, followed by a flattening in the '90s and then a resumption in the post-9/11 era:

Washington PostWashington Post

So the fall-off in campus tolerance for controversial speech doesn't just affect the right. The good news here is the trend among those 26-and-uppers. The ones with a college education didn't see any decline, and the ones without a college education have actually grown steadily more tolerant. (A third chart, which I won't repost here but you can find in Sides' article, shows a similar jump in the number of non-college-educated older Americans willing to back the free-speech rights of an atheist.)

The biggest question for me, looking at those data, is why the decline in collegiate civil libertarianism resumed after the '90s. One possible factor: The further you get into the 21st century, the more college-age people there are who don't remember the '80s. Backlashes fade with memory.

Photo Credit: Newtown Grafitti

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  • timbo||

    Free speech made sense when you did not lose your job, your house, and your first born for exercising it.

  • Quixote||

    Only within the limits imposed by basic civility. The real question is not why the defenders of so-called "free-speech" have fallen silent. The question is how a single, isolated, so-called judge can be allowed to publish an outrageous dissenting opinion, in which he has the nerve to assert that jailing those who send out inappropriately deadpan Gmail "parodies" in New York "amounts to an atavism at odds with the First Amendment and the free and uninhibited exchange of ideas it is meant to foster." See the documentation of this outrage at:

    https://raphaelgolbtrial.wordpress.com/

  • Sevo||

    Whiskey?
    Tango?
    Foxtrot?

  • Liberty Lover||

    Free speech means you can say what you want without fear of prosecution, not that you won't suffer any consequences from your speech. Yes, your boss can fire you.

  • Citizen X - #6||

  • Get To Da Chippah||

    Where Have All the Free Speech Fans Gone?

    Long time passing

  • Jesse Walker||

    I was tempted to use "Gone to graveyards, every one" as my subtitle. Alas, it didn't really fit the data.

  • rudehost||

    Right idea. Probably about 20 years too soon.

  • Leo Kovalensky||

    "...Gone to safe spaces, every one. Oh when will they ever learn? Oh when will they ever learn?"

  • esteve7||

    Many are in favor of speech they like and fine with suppressing speech they don't. I know the right does it too, but I live in the bay area and the leftists here only want certain approved speech. I've had people tell me that we should think of words the same was as actual violence, which is why they think it's ok to punch Nazis (or "White Male Libertarians"), because in their sick twisted minds that is the same as someone speaking works they don't like.

    These fucks deserve Trump. They think censorship and violence against speech they don't like is OK because they thought they will always be in power.

    Goes back to their parents, which failed to teach them any sense of how to be a decent human being. To them it's totally ok to punch someone to tell them to shut up.

    How exactly is fascism on the right, again? Yeah I thought so

  • Quo Usque Tandem||

    We have generations of these characters who have been raised on a steady diet of correctness, everyone should be a winner, and intolerance of anything that does not comport with liberal catechism. And of course being victims of everyone who isn't. Those of us of earlier gens tend to think that freedom is a rock solid bedrock of Constitutional principles; not so. They only last as long as a plurality of us value them.

    Of course they have as much to do with the phenomena that is Trump, but will only continue try harder and expect something different.

    Call me Cassandra, but I despair.

  • San Diego||

    I like the cut of your jib!

  • WakaWaka||

    The difference is that in the 1990's, the commanding heights of media all universally renounced censorship and the Orwellian speak that exists on college campuses.

    Today, though, we have media institutions applauding the concept of 'bash the fash' (not to mention that anyone just right of Joseph Stalin is a 'fascist' in the eyes of radicals on college campuses); allowing false conspiracy theories to flourish that riots in Berkeley were a false flag somehow engineered by the president and his supporters (ignoring the multiple incidences of violence used against so called controversial speakers on college campuses), and any defense of Charles Murray in the NYT and WaPo has been tempered with a lot of 'to be sures' and 'colleges aren't all that intolerant'.

    Fact is that media institutions have failed to defend free speech, because they think certain speech is 'icky'. Hell, your publication, alone, still employs someone who excused away the violence at Berkeley, by suggesting that the people who invited Milo to speak were 'provoking' the little Maoists (as if 'provocative speech' someone is not the whole purpose for the existence of the First Amendment).

    A few years from now when you wonder why John Stossel has been labeled a 'Nazi' by college radicals, just look at your peers in the media industry and their abject failure to unequivocally defend 'free speech'.

  • Voros McCracken||

    "Fact is that media institutions have failed to defend free speech, because they think certain speech is 'icky'."

    That's not the reason why. They've always thought that.

    Their change in attitude is because the press now has a lot more to fear from decentralized speech because it's far easier for it to reach huge audiences. Some nitwit in 1990 shouting on a soap box could say what he wanted, and they didn't care. Fast forward to 2017 and Alex Jones or Milo or even a guy like Pew Die Pie can drastically cut into their market share.

    The press feels its only method of survival is by shutting down speech it doesn't like and co-opting the speech that it does.

  • WakaWaka||

    Maybe. I'm not disputing that point. I just seem to remember a lot of unequivocal defenses for speech in the 1990's then I see now. I remember when some wanted Eminem to be dis-invited to the MTV Music Awards and they wanted him to apologize for his homophobic lyrics. No one buckled to those complaints. Now, Eminem, circa 1999 would be run-off any college campus and labeled a 'Nazi'.

    (NOTE: Eminem is the first example I could think of- probably the most ridiculous, but nonetheless)

  • Zeb||

    You are right about that I think. There don't seem to be as many people willing to absolutely defend free speech and the right of people to be offensive (SLD, MTV can censor whoever they want on their awards show). But the problem isn't that more people think that some speech is icky, it's that more people think that icky speech should be silenced.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    See, in the 1990's the Mainstream Media didn't clearly see that they were headed for a niche market pandering only to the Established Left. They are more aware of that now, and they are running scared. And people who are running scared do dumb things. Like declare that Hate Speech is not Free Speech when that are in the speech business and should be well aware of the number of people who consider them hateful.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    You assume that the media didn't intend to run lefty.

    It started a loooong time ago and John Stossel can give specific examples.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    Oh, the media always intended to go Left (at least since WWII). But they thought they were being smooth about it. They thought that few people noticed and that there weren't going to be alternatives anyway. They were wrong (especially about being smooth). Now they are headed in the direction of being niche market outlets, like the New Republic was in the '30's. Lots of lost face in that direction.

  • rudehost||

    I really don't believe it has anything to do with their business model. You think the Paul Krugman's of the world sit and ruminate about how Milo is going to affect the bottom line of the NY TImes? I don't. This is ideological and political. They don't want other views to be allowed to speak because it interferes with them achieving their political goals. Those goals happen to include the ability to control what people are allowed to say and hear. Shutting up people who disagree with them is both a means and an end. Should they ever get their way X years down the road after the last of millions of bodies is buried they will be shrugging their shoulders and saying the movement failed because it wasn't true communism but rather "State libertarianism".

  • Colossal Douchebag||

    Spot on, Voros. When I control one of the very few mass communications channels available, espousing free speech is in my interest-- I decide what gets watched/listened to/read, and I can say whatever I want.

    But when the media oligopoly is challenged on all sides by upstarts, the upstarts' freedom becomes more than just a problem, it becomes a challenge to my very survival.

  • Zeb||

    Pretty much everybody thinks certain speech is icky.

  • WakaWaka||

    Not everyone would want it silenced or be indifferent if that speech were silenced

  • Zeb||

    Of course.

  • albo||

    The thing is, we wouldn't need the first amendment if everybody just agreed with me. Goodthink for the win.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    Some of us, though, are prepared to say "You can say (or print, or display) that icky thing, so long as I'm not paying for it."

    Disgusting porn? Tell the Feminists to retire to their fainting couches. Hate Speech? Hell, we certainly don't want that driven underground where it will fester. Clown Brigades like the KKK or the American Nazi Party can only thrive if nobody is pointing at them and laughing.

    Hell, the infamous Photo "Black and Gay Klan Members for Tolerance" with the lavender robes has probably done more to diminish the Klan than any FBI operation since 1980.

    The fathers I will go towards censorship is to tell the various Protest groups; "Look, kids. I know playing shock the squares is fun. I've done it. But it isn't productive. Nobody takes advice from a prat wearing a plush vagina for a hat. Nobody accepts a twit who's wearing his BDSM gear on the street as their social equal; they peg him as an arrested adolescent with bad taste and move on. People who 'let it all hang out' are a tiresome drag, and probably a potent source of infectious STDs. Nobody listens to them.

  • Zeb||

    Yes, I quite agree.

    All I mean is that the problem isn't people thinking some speech is icky, it's people who think that means icky people shouldn't be allowed to say icky things.

  • jelabarre||

    Hate Speech? Hell, we certainly don't want that driven underground where it will fester. Clown Brigades like the KKK or the American Nazi Party can only thrive if nobody is pointing at them and laughing.

    Sometimes that's the best way to address bigoted, racist speech; let them talk and dig their own grave. As the saying goes (in numerous variants) "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt." So let the idiots talk, we need a good laugh.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    Remember the big flap about the Neo Nazi march in Skokie Il.? Well a few years later the same scumbags, all puffed up with free publicity from the Skokie flap, announced a march in some other town that wasn't too thrilled. Why have I forgotten that town's name (and you probably never heard of it)? Because they town came together and allowed the swine to march, making it a special 'mock the assholes' celebration. Corndogs and funnel cakes were sold. Signs proclaiming 'Hitler was a loser' were waved. Any Neo Nazi who steppped one inch out of line was arrested.

    And it was non-news. A chuckle at the end of local broadcasts. A small item in the National Review.

    And I bet membership in that bunch of idiots dropped like a,rock.

  • Jerryskids||

    The biggest question for me, looking at those data, is why the decline in collegiate civil libertarianism resumed after the '90s.

    The biggest question for me is how the question of whether or not you'd allow a "racist" to speak was framed then and now. Forty years ago, a racist might mean a member of the KKK or the Nazi Party, today it could mean a Republican or a white man. The displayed falling level of tolerance might be over-shadowed by the real decline in tolerance in that the 50% who say they'd tolerate a racist's freedom of speech just means they accept that Rush Limbaugh shouldn't actually be taken out and shot. It doesn't necessarily mean they think David Duke has the same right to speak.

  • Quo Usque Tandem||

    When I was in grad school at LSU in the 70s Duke was a frequent fixture of the designated "free speech rally," He would show up and espouse his views, the school paper would report on it, and several people would stand around and heckle him. That's about all that happened, and nobody died or even had as much as a hissy-fit. He was seen for what and who he was, and that wan't a bad thing.

    Today, Baton Rouge would descend into a larger version of Ferguson, the National Guard would be called out, and there would be endless legislation proposed to do something to keep this from happening.

    I just don't see it getting any better.

  • SIV||

  • Social Darwinist||

    As a cold war vet serving throughout the 80's, I'm surprised that support for communist speech was higher than racist speech during that period. After the wall fell, 1989, it's surprising that the communist speech support didn't increase. At that point a communist speaker would have had a hard time making the case for communism working in any meaningful way. They could point at China,but to most people in the West, at that time, the USSR was the benchmark of communism. Sad to see support for any type of speech is falling. Thankfully the college aged group still heavily supports speech articulating more traditional American values like capitalism, self sufficiency, freedom of association, gun ownership, etc.

  • Zeb||

    Is "cold war vet" a new thing, or just something I've recently noticed? Are people who served in the 80s disappointed we didn't get into any bigger wars or something?

  • John Titor||

    It sounds cooler than 'I spent a month in Grenada'.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    +1 kicked-over fruit stand

  • albo||

    I'm one. Believe it or not, if you contact your congressman you can get a certificate that you fought in the Cold War. There actually is one. I have mine framed for lulz.

  • Social Darwinist||

    That's funny. I did not know that. Of course there has to be some sort of certificate.

  • Social Darwinist||

    No. It's the group of vets sandwiched between Vietnam and Desert Storm. The cold war ran even past the fall of the Berlin wall but shifted targets somewhat. Russia was always surveilled but some of the eastern block and breakaways were traded differently, especially after German reunification.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    You can just be a vet (veteran of the military).

    My experience as a disabled veteran of foreign wars, is that the more you brag, the less you did.

  • damikesc||

    Because you cannot find college professors who support racism. Finding professors who support Marxism isn't that challenging a task. And that has been the case for decades.

  • esteve7||

    jesus fucking christ, how do progs get to be so messed up?

    "for those who are saying 'but we're not required to drive a car', I thought of a good analogy:

    There are exceptions (small towns, cities with strong public transportation options, etc) but isn't saying, 'we're not required to drive a car,' like saying ,'we're not required to own a phone / have an e-mail?'

    Yeah, technically, you're not required, but try functioning in society without those things"

  • Zeb||

    It's not just "progs" (unless you define "progs" as everyone who isn't a full-bore defender of free speech).

  • esteve7||

    True but you don't see violence at Tea Party events or people punching communists. All the violence is coming from the left

  • Zeb||

    I was mostly referring to terrible views on free speech.

  • damikesc||

    No doubt. But "not liking it" and "actively suppressing it" are far different things. The Right doesn't LIKE it but doesn't have a habit of silencing it.

  • Alan Vanneman||

    Good lord, I followed the links and now I know the truth! Jonathan Chait was funnier at 19 than Jesse is now! Okay, never again! Never again!

  • Zeb||

    Seems like the exact working of the questions would matter a lot. I'd think you would get a lot of different responses depending on if you asked "should X be allowed to speak?" or "does X have the right to speak?" or "should force be used to prevent X from speaking?".

  • mtrueman||

    "the General Social Survey has periodically asked Americans if they think someone should have a right to give a racist speech in their community."

    Rather than focusing on students, how about asking Americans who own mass media outlets? These are the people whose opinions can make a difference, deciding what the rest of us see to a large degree. I remember watching extensive news coverage of the conflict in Syria. Not once did the American press deign to interview a radical jihadist or spokesperson for their take on the issue, or anything else. I suppose they do interview the occasional communist or racist, it's America, after all, but I was quite surprised to see a total lack of dissenting voices in coverage of the Syrian situation, day after day.

  • BTS11||

    So in 50 years?? No one will support free speech or will it accelerate and be 25 years and no one will support free speech

  • Zeb||

    I hope I will live longer than that.

  • Damned||

    There have never been many, and yet here we are.

  • albo||

    So, the graph tells me that young people, regardless of education level, are getting more and more intolerant?

    I wonder if they do a prudery survey, too. I'd be interested in seeing if the young are not as sexually hedonistic as they used to be. The "horny teen movie" seems to be in a drought recently.

  • ||

    The "horny teen movie" seems to be in a drought recently.

    I just assumed Paul Rudd, Sean William Scott, Pornhub, and Romantic Comedies were just fooling around with the knife and it ended up sticking out of the genre's back... on accident, they swear.

  • Damned||

    Intolerant of racist speech, yes. Especially now that the 50s are gone and you cannot call a black man a nigger quite as freely as back then, and they do not want to see that intolerant culture back.

  • rmodiz||

    "should have a right"

    That's an intriguing formulation, especially in a libertarian forum.

  • albo||

    Well, Joel's an asshole.

  • DOOMco||

    SAFE SPACES! TRIGGER WARNINGS!
    that's why. It's been seeping into people my age since 1st grade. I'm sure those teachers didn't start with me.
    Then we go home, and the news is talking about the same thing. speech causes bad things, therefore we need to curb it.

    it takes a while, but if you can just get a few more every year, you'll win over time.

  • buybuydandavis||

    The Left luvs them sum one way rule of law.

    It's all "free speech" when it's their speech, and it's a gun in the face when it's the Right's speech.
    Note the differential between free speech for "racists", and free speech for communists.
    Note also that as the Left has tightened their grip on academic bureaucracy, tolerance for dissent has gone done.

    Rights for them, a gun in the face for you. That's how they roll.

  • esteve7||

    See: Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Chavez, Pol Pot, etc.

    Amazing how it's only the far left that results in million and millions of dead bodies

  • Roger Knights||

    "Amazing how it's only the far left that results in million and millions of dead bodies."

    Amazing how rarely "far left" appears in the media compared to "far right."

  • Damned||

    Amazing how Hitler figures as the far left. Also amazing how the far left leaves behind so many dead bodies and have not yet outnumbered the losers.

  • Gracchus||

    How does Hitler end up on on the "far left"? As I recall, he was on the far right and even peeled off moderates and conservatives during the last election in 1932.

  • Fuck You - Cut Spending||

    The biggest question for me, looking at those data, is why the decline in collegiate civil libertarianism resumed after the '90s.

    Lots of reasons:

    1) People are more infantilized than ever before
    2) More idiots are getting into college these days.
    3) More students are in debt up to their eyeballs and see that it isn't going to get them anywhere.
    4) Taxes are higher
    5) Everything else is more regulated than 20 years ago

    Basically, this is what a police state looks like - bred by socialism and the self-esteem movement.

  • Roger Knights||

    A big factor, I suspect in the rise in heckling and worse of conservative, etc. speakers is the existence of far left Internet sites that monitor upcoming conservative speeches nationwide and helps to organize protests against them (and against other things that outrage the far left), including in some cases importing protesters.

  • AD-RtR/OS!||

    "Free Speech" was just a hook to get new members of the Progressive/Fascist Party that has never believed in it.
    It has been very successful.

  • Damned||

    Yup, the Republicans established their monopoly on racism, so no one could then being a racist in the Progressive/Fascist Party. Logical.

  • John C. Randolph||

    the college kids aren't leading the way so much as they're converging with the non-college crew

    I wonder if this is due to stupider people getting into college once the government made it possible for anyone to go to college by signing up for a debt they can't handle?

    -jcr

  • Damned||

    Blame the boomers for being lousy parents.

  • Watson MD||

    Things have gotten very bad in Los Angeles where the city council has been cracking down on its critics using the police. An audio was released last week which is just amazing https://vimeo.com/207073040

  • Liberty Lover||

    Times have certainly changed. I can remember when people said " I might not agree with you, but I will defend your right to say that". Now it is STFU!

  • Rational Exuberance||

    The first thing you'll probably notice is that the percentage of the college-age crowd supporting the racist's freedom of speech has decreased dramatically over those four decades.

    The college crowd simply regressed to the non-college mean, which isn't surprising since that's what has happened academically anyway.

    Another question is one of context. By no accepted legal or philosophical principle do racists or communists have a right to speak at a private college or university. In fact, the private ability to ostracize people and restrict speech on private property is an essential part of having free speech rights in a society.

    And for a public university, the question is pretty much meaningless to me because I don't believe the government should be funding such institutions in the first place, other than possibly through limited vouchers and stipends.

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