New survey on free speech on campus sounds the alarm

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In case anyone needed reminding that free speech—that cornerstone of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution –is threatened around the country, especially on college campuses, a new survey provides frightening evidence.

Nearly one in five respondents to a new Brookings Institution poll of 1,500 college students said it was acceptable to use violence to prevent someone they disagreed with from speaking at a campus event.

“Any number significantly above zero is concerning,” says John Villasenor, who conducted the survey. Yet such findings provide insight into the riots at Berkley earlier this year and mob mentality that gripped places like Evergreen State College.

Villasenor reports that 62 percent of respondents that identified as Democrats said it was acceptable to shout so loudly that “the audience cannot hear a speaker” compared to 39 percent of Republicans and 45 percent of Independents.

He writes, “In fact, despite protestations to the contrary… freedom of expression is clearly not, in practice, available on many campuses, including many public campuses that have First Amendment obligations” (emphasis mine).

The survey also found that more than half of respondents want to be sheltered from ideas with which they disagree: 53 percent of respondents said a university should “create a positive learning environment for all students by prohibiting certain speech or expression of viewpoints that are offensive or biased against certain groups of people” instead of “create an open learning environment where students are exposed to all types of speech and viewpoints, even if it means allowing speech that is offensive or biased against certain groups of people.

Villasenor also found gaps in knowledge about the First Amendment. Forty-four percent of respondents said that “hate speech” is not constitutionally protected, while 16 percent did not know whether such speech was protected or not (while vile and repugnant, it is protected).

Villasenor draws conclusions from the survey that are similar to what Stanley Kurtz of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and Goldwater Institute researchers wrote in their campus free speech proposal earlier this year. “College faculty and administrators have a heightened responsibility to do a better job at fostering freedom of expression on their campuses,” Villasenor says, and he adds that high schools should do a better job of educating students about what the First Amendment means.

“I would hope that we can do a better job at convincing current and future college students that the best way to respond to offensive speech is with vigorous debate, or peaceful protest—and not, as many seem to believe, with violence,” Villasenor says. Current events make this the calling for all of us.

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