College Students and the First Amendment

A Brookings Institution survey reveals that college students may not be completely comfortable with freedom of expression on campus – or fully familiar with what the First Amendment protects.

A Brookings Institution survey reveals that college students may not be completely comfortable with freedom of expression on campus – or fully familiar with what the First Amendment protects.

US college campuses may be a harbinger of evolving American attitudes on free speech, hate speech and the First Amendment. Survey research conducted for the Brookings Institution reveals sharp divisions by political affiliation, gender and type of university over what speech is acceptable and what isn’t.

The research also demonstrates college students may not know what the First Amendment says.

Regarding hate speech, 44 percent of the 1,500 current undergraduate students at US four-year colleges and universities who were interviewed in the latter part of August, said the US Constitution does not protect it, while 50 percent said it does. (It does.) Students identifying as Republicans, private college undergraduates and males were more likely to say there is constitutional protection for hate speech than Democrats, public college students and women. The gap was largest between men and women. Fifty-one percent of men said hate speech is protected as opposed to only 31 percent of women.

When it comes to controversial speakers on campus, 62 percent of students identifying as Democrats think it is acceptable to shout down an objectionable speaker, contrasted with only 39 percent of Republican students.

There is no difference in attitudes by public and private college students, but again males and females sharply disagree. Fifty-seven percent of men agree it is okay to disrupt a controversial speaker compared to 47 percent of women.

Jason Villasenor, a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings, said the most disturbing aspect of this finding is that overall 51 percent of students find it acceptable to shout down a speaker they find offensive. In response to a separate question, 19 percent of all students thought it was acceptable for student groups to use violence to block a speaker. Again, there was a significant gender difference, with 30 percent of males saying it was okay to use violence contrasted to 10 percent of females.

“The survey results establish what has been clear anecdotally to anyone who has been observing campus dynamics in recent years: Freedom of expression is deeply imperiled on US campuses,” he says.

Villasenor attributes student views to a lack of knowledge about what the First Amendment permits. For example, he posed a question about whether colleges are legally required to offset an offensive speaker with someone with an opposing view. Sixty-two percent of student respondents agreed colleges are required to balance offensive or hurtful speech with the other side, though Villasenor said there is no such constitutional requirement.

“Many of the respondents appear to be confusing good event design, which under some circumstances can indeed benefit from the presentation of counterpoints, with the completely different issue of what compliance with the First Amendment requires,” Villasenor says.

He also expressed dismay at student response to his question about whether they preferred a college atmosphere that prohibited offensive viewpoints on campus as opposed to an open learning environment that exposed students to a range of viewpoints. Fifty-three percent of students expressed a preference for a more sheltered college atmosphere. On this question, the widest gap was between Democrats and Republicans/Independents. Sixty-one percent of students identifying as Democrats favored limiting exposure to offensive speech, while only 47 percent of Republicans and 45 percent of Independents shared that preference.

Villasenor believes college faculty should assume greater responsibility for “fostering freedom of expression on their campuses.” He is doubtful that will happen because he suspects faculty members may share the same viewpoints as students.

He suggests starting earlier in middle and high schools to teach students about the First Amendment. “We don’t need to turn students into experts on constitutional law, but we can do a better job of giving them a fuller explanation of the scope of the First Amendment,” Villasenor says.