A new survey of college students released Wednesday shows a growing intolerance to the principles of free speech, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
Polling more than 2,200 students on an array of First Amendment issues, the Philadelphia-based group found that “a majority of college students value inclusivity over free speech, think their fellow students should have their political views censored if they are hurtful or offensive to certain students, and think that students should be excluded from extracurricular activities if they publicly express intolerant, hurtful or offensive viewpoints, the group said.
While the right to free speech and association polls well in the abstract, it fails to hold up with students when it is subjected to many of the restrictions favored by many administrators and faculty at campuses around the nation, FIRE said.
“Students overwhelmingly support free speech rights as a general principle, but that support hollows out when they are asked more specific questions about those rights,” FIRE communications director Nico Perrino said. “This is troubling because it suggests a surface level understanding of the free speech protections that underlie the First Amendment.”
For example, the percentage of students who “agreed or strongly agreed” that the campus protect students from exposure to “intolerant and offensive ideas,” increased from 58 percent in 2017 to 64 percent in the latest survey.
Overall, 96 percent of students surveyed said they consider the freedom of speech and of assembly critical civil liberties.
However, 60 percent of them think promoting an “inclusive environment that is welcome to a diverse group of students” trumps protection of students’ free speech rights. 57 percent said colleges should be able to crimp free speech if certain students regard it as “hurtful or offensive.” 70 percent think a school should exclude students who publicly express “intolerant, hurtful or offensive viewpoints” from extracurricular activities on campus.
The survey found perhaps predictable differences in how the freedom of expression was seen by students of different partisan persuasions. Republican students, for instance, were 14 percentage points more likely than their Democratic colleagues to think the current climate on campus makes it difficult “to have conversations about important issues such as race, politics and gender.”
Students were also polled about their views regarding membership or participation in groups that may be out of favor in the current climate on campus. Many schools have been engaged in ongoing debates about whether fraternities, sororities or other private clubs should be permitted at colleges. Some schools have seen legal challenges filed against groups that sought to prevent students who don’t share the group’s expressed purpose from either joining or seeking leadership roles in the group.
Considerable majorities of students surveyed support such groups and their missions, FIRE found, with 75 percent believing students should be free to join such groups and 73 percent think it reasonable for the groups to deny leadership positions to students who don’t agree with a group’s mission.