A Free-Speech Debate Devoid of Facts

A survey reveals how little commentators know about what students think about the First Amendment.

Shannon Stapleton / Reuters
Is free speech really under assault on college campuses? The debate has been ongoing, much of it across headlines at this publication, but so far all of the sides have lacked one key thing: detailed data, especially on student attitudes. The debate has relied mostly on arguments between prominent commentators based on anecdotes, a handful of small polls, and a few sensationalized moments, but too few broadly applicable insights.

A new survey from Gallup, the Knight Foundation, and the Newseum Institute offers a bit of much-needed data about free speech on college campuses. The survey provides context for how students themselves view the integrity of free speech and how different demographics view First Amendment protections. But even as it begins to offer insight on some of the central issues in play, the survey poses new questions—that it can’t quite answer—about the very nature of free speech. With a framework limited to five easily delineated constitutional freedoms, the survey misses out on some other considerations that can make college campuses foreign lands to older commentators. Gender expression and fluidity, Internet accessibility, and the potential for social-media backlash, for example, are important considerations that aren’t so clearly defined in the First Amendment.

But first, the results. In a sample of over 3,000 college students across 240 colleges, a strong majority viewed all forms of First Amendment-protected freedoms as secure. Seventy-three percent viewed freedom of speech as secure or very secure, and 81 percent view freedom of the press as secure. Half of all college students said they thought free-speech protections have grown stronger over the past two decades. Students themselves seem to be less concerned about a wave of “political correctness” overtaking free speech than some journalists.

Black students seem to be less sure about First Amendment protections than their white counterparts, though. Across each of the five freedoms—religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition—black students were less likely to rate them as secure; two-thirds of all black students said they believe freedom of assembly is under threat. While certain writers have caricatured racial “social-justice warriors” as anti-freedom zealots who simply wish to curtail speech they don’t agree with, this data point provides a reality check. How does that caricature fit with this survey’s suggestion that black students are more afraid than anyone of losing their freedoms? Recent events such as the University of Missouri protests especially bring this into focus. After professor Melissa Click stonewalled a reporter at a protester camp,  that incident became an opportunity to chide student protesters. But the black students involved seemed to be deeply concerned about their own rights to assemble and speak out freely, a fear that was well-informed by America’s history of crushing racial dissent.

The apparent gulf between student viewpoints and commentary could have a deeper cause: Some American students may have novel conceptualizations of the appropriate boundaries of free speech. According to this survey, the vast majority of college students, even women and black students, believe campuses should not restrict political views as a matter of policy, even if those views are offensive to some. Students tend to draw the line at slurs and ethnically stereotypical costumes, however, with 69 and 63 percent, respectively, believing campuses should have the ability to restrict those kinds of expressions. A previous study has indicated that other adults are far less enthusiastic about creating policy to minimize slurs, which showcases just how much students and older adults differ in their views of free speech.

While the survey does have items pertaining to social media, it has some trouble grappling with the fact that social media is now a natural and necessary extension of campus life, as opposed to a separate world with separate rules. The survey is limited—as is the free-speech debate—by an outdated reading of journalistic freedoms. “Do you think students should or should not be able to prevent reporters from covering protests held on college campuses?” the survey asks students, perhaps referring to instances like the mishap at Mizzou. But the survey does not broach questions like whether protected tweets or Facebook posts can or should be shared, or whether campuses could monitor or take action on social-media organizing and offensive posts. These considerations are probably more immediately present in the minds of students than journalists’ admission to in-person rallies.

That’s not to say this survey isn’t important. Perhaps this data will facilitate a more level and productive discourse on the real ways in which college students’ views on the First Amendment might be changing––and whether that’s a bad thing. But maybe this poll should also prompt some reflection: Hand-wringing about the First Amendment on college campuses doesn’t necessarily capture what students think about free speech, let alone the novel questions about free speech they are facing in their everyday lives.