- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The relationship between college students and free speech: It’s complicated.

A Gallup survey showed that 72 percent of college students said they opposed campus restrictions on “expressing political views that are upsetting or offensive to certain groups.”

But asked whether “slurs” and other “intentionally offensive” language should be banned, they said they were all for it.

Sixty-nine percent of college students surveyed said they would be in favor of prohibiting “intentionally offensive” speech on campus, and 63 percent said they would support administrative measures to ban “costumes that stereotype certain racial or ethnic groups.”

As the sound and the fury over the “Trump 2016” chalkings at Emory University shows, there is a gray area between political expression and intentionally offensive speech in the minds of today’s college students.

Gallup said that controversy may have arisen “out of the ambiguity of whether such messages are permissible expressions of controversial political viewpoints or impermissible expressions designed to hurt and threaten members of certain groups.”

Other metrics in the survey similarly show college students hedging on their commitments to free speech — supporting it in the abstract but wavering in specific cases.

Although blocking reporters from covering protests has become fashionable on campus, 70 percent of students said journalists should not be denied access to such demonstrations, compared with 28 percent who said they should.

But when asked to evaluate popular reasons for denying access to the press, the students were more conflicted.

Forty-nine percent of students said obstructing journalists is “legitimate” if “the people at the protest believe the press will be unfair to them in its reporting”; 48 percent said blocking the media is “legitimate” if the “people at the protest or public gathering say they have a right to be left alone”; and 44 percent said it is “legitimate” if the protesters want to “tell their own story on the Internet and social media.”

Female and black college students were more likely to say the press can be blocked in such circumstances.

Despite their reticence to embrace unmitigated speech in certain areas, college students are more likely than adults to say free speech in the U.S. is “secure.” While 56 percent of adults say protections on free speech are robust, that number balloons to 73 percent for college students.

Negative attitudes toward free speech were evident last week at the University of Pennsylvania, when students shut down a talk featuring CIA Director John O. Brennan. Demonstrators at the event held signs that read “Drone strikes breed terrorism,” passed out anti-CIA agitprop and shouted, “Black lives matter.”

But in a reassuring sign for free speech advocates, UPenn administrators admonished the disruptive students and defended the free exchange of ideas as a “treasured freedom.”

“As you exercise your right to free expression, it is critical that you also respect the rights of others to express their ideas and thoughts,” Provost Vincent Price and Vice Provost for University Life Valarie Swain-Cade McCoullum wrote in an email sent to undergraduate students. “The freedom goes both ways.”

The Gallup poll surveyed 3,072 college students from Feb. 29 to March 15 and had an error margin of 3 percentage points.

Jessica Chasmar contributed to this report.

• Bradford Richardson can be reached at brichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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