What College Students Really Think About Free Speech

Niraj Chokshi, New York Times, March 12, 2018

To some, free speech on college campuses appears to be under attack, but what do the students themselves think? A study released on Monday offers some answers based on a survey of more than 3,000 of them.

The survey, a collaboration among five groups, finds that college students feel increasingly stifled on campus and online, and while they equally value free speech and inclusivity, they wrestle with how best to balance the two.


College students believe about equally in free expression and pluralism, with nearly 90 percent saying that free speech protections are very or extremely important to American democracy and more than 80 percent saying the same of promoting an inclusive and diverse society.

When forced to choose, a majority of students said that diversity and inclusivity were more important than free speech, though opinions differed widely by demographic.

Those who belong to groups historically or currently in positions of power—white students, men or Republicans—tended to favor free speech, while nearly two in three students who were black, women or Democrats favored inclusivity. That gap was widest along partisan lines, with 66 percent of Democrats saying inclusivity was more important and 69 percent of Republicans saying the same of free speech.

Still, a majority of students in every demographic drew a line for hate speech, saying that it does not deserve First Amendment protection.

On campus policies, students showed broad agreement that restrictions should be placed on racial slurs and costumes that promote stereotypes. They also widely supported safe spaces for those who feel upset or threatened and free speech zones where protests or partisan proselytizing is explicitly allowed. Even 70 percent of Republicans surveyed supported safe spaces on campus, an idea often dismissed by conservatives.


Still, they increasingly believe that speech is being stifled. Last year, 61 percent said that their campus climate deterred speech, up from 54 percent in 2016. That sense was widely held among students at colleges big and small, private and public. {snip}


The vast majority of students blame social media for an increase in hate speech, with about two in three saying that platforms like Facebook and Twitter should take responsibility to limit that speech.


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