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Freedom of expression on campus: An overview of some recent surveys


When I heard that my UCLA colleague John Villasenor conducted a survey on college student attitudes toward freedom of expression, I asked him if he could pass along some thoughts on the subject, and he very graciously did. Here's John's take:

The last month or so has seen the release of results from no fewer than four surveys relevant to the question of what today's college students think about freedom of expression. Collectively, these surveys portray a picture of freedom of expression on campus that, while disappointing, is not particularly surprising to anyone who has been following the drumbeat of news about on-campus disinvitations and speaker shoutdowns.

Here, in chronological order by publication date, are the four recently released surveys along with a discussion of some notable results:

1. On September 18, through the Brookings Institution, I published some results from a survey of 1,500 U.S. citizen undergraduates at 4-year colleges and universities (I plan to present more detailed results in a forthcoming law review publication). That survey showed, for example, that fewer than half of the respondents believe that the First Amendment protects hate speech. The result that got the most press (and criticism from skeptics) was in relation to the following question:

A public university invites a very controversial speaker to an on-campus event. The speaker is known for making offensive and hurtful statements. A student group opposed to the speaker uses violence to prevent the speaker from speaking. Do you agree or disagree that the student group's actions are acceptable?

19% of the respondents stated that they agreed with the student group's actions, while 81% stated that they disagreed. And, as the results from several of the other surveys discussed below make clear, the 19% figure isn't an outlier.

It's also worth noting that, by coincidence, the data for this survey was collected during the second half of August, i.e., just after the events in Charlottesville. Some people have suggested that was an inappropriate time to collect data, but my view is that collecting data on views regarding civil liberties in times of stress provides valuable information. After all, history clearly shows us that those are precisely the times when civil liberties are most at risk of being abridged. Knowing what people think when those liberties are under stress is therefore highly relevant.

2. In late September, McLaughlin & Associates released results of a survey of 800 undergraduates at four-year colleges and universities conducted from September 16 to 24. In that survey, a stunning 81% of respondents stated that they agreed with the following statement: "Words can be a form of violence." This is clearly a concern, since someone who believes that words can be violence is also more likely to believe that violence is an appropriate tactic to either silence or preempt expression containing those words.

The McLaughlin survey also asked whether respondents agreed or disagreed with the following statement: "If someone is using hate speech or making racially charged comments, physical violence can be justified to prevent this person from espousing their hateful views." 30% of the respondents stated that they agreed. And, support for violence in this scenario spanned the political spectrum: 35% of Democrats agreed, as did 31% of Republicans and 26% of Independents.

3. In early October, the Economist/YouGov released results of a poll of 1,500 U.S. adults conducted from September 24-26. While that survey involved U.S. adults generally, most of whom are of course not current college students, it is particularly relevant here because it adopted exactly the same question regarding violence (see item #1 above) that I had used in the survey published through Brookings. As noted above, in that survey 19% of respondents stated that that agreed with the use of violence in the scenario presented, while 81% stated that they disagreed.

In the Economist/YouGov survey, the results among the 18-29 age group (i.e., the age range with the most college students) for that question were: Agree strongly or agree somewhat: 14%; Disagree strongly or disagree somewhat: 67%; Not sure: 19%. Thus, fully a third of respondents in the 18-29 age group didn't affirmatively disagree with the use of violence to silence speech. This, in and of itself, is a highly disturbing finding.

In addition, if the "not sure" responses are removed and the responses among respondents in the Economist/YouGov survey who either agreed or disagreed in that question are considered, the agree percentage in the 18-29 age group is slightly over 17% of that subset of respondents (obtained by dividing 14 by 81), which is close to the 19% number observed for that same question in the survey published through Brookings.

4. On October 11, the Foundational for Individual Rights on Education (FIRE)-which, by the way, has been doing excellent work for years to help promote free expression on U.S. campuses-released the results of a survey of 1,250 U.S. students at 2- and 4-year undergraduate institutions conducted in May/June. FIRE's survey found that 46% of respondents answered "yes" to the question of whether the First Amendment protects hate speech-a number that, as did the responses to that same question in the survey published through Brookings, indicates that fewer than half of undergraduates view hate speech as constitutionally protected.

Regarding the use of violence to silence speech, the FIRE survey had a question that was different from the question used in the survey published through Brookings and in the Economist/YouGov survey, and also different from the question in the McLaughlin survey. FIRE asked respondents whether they, personally, might use violence or disruptive actions to prevent an on-campus speech "if a guest speaker with ideas and opinions I strongly disagree with were invited to my college campus." 1% of respondents said they might do this. This is a much lower percentage than was found in the violence questions in the other surveys mentioned above, although that is not surprising. People are much less likely to state that they would themselves engage in violence than they are to agree with the potential use of violence committed by a third party. Another interesting result from the FIRE survey relates to self-censorship: FIRE reported that "at least half of students (54%) agree that they have stopped themselves from sharing an idea or opinion in class at some point since beginning college."

The college student surveys cited above were conducted using online opt-in panels. For reaching college students and other digital natives, that has become a widely adopted approach. A traditional survey method such as random digit dialing to land lines simply doesn't work for reaching these populations.

More broadly, two key takeaways are as follows: First, in my view it belies logic to assert, as some do, that all is well with respect to freedom of expression on campus, and that any suggestion to the contrary is an attempt to manufacture a concern where none exists. In light of the data above and the growing list of examples in which on-campus audiences were denied the opportunity to hear from invited speakers, it is certainly reasonable to debate the extent of the problem, but I don't believe it is reasonable to deny the existence of the problem.

Second, this is an issue that spans the political spectrum. The surveys discussed above found significant levels of intolerance to on-campus speech among Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. This underscores the fact that we all have an interest, regardless of our personal political views, in an improved climate for free expression at U.S. colleges and universities.

I'm hoping that surveys like those discussed above will not only help spur discussion on this important issue, but also help spur efforts to get more data on views regarding free expression among this critically important population.