A new survey of college students shows that more students believe in curbing speech they believe to be offensive than in preserving wide open free speech rights.
The survey found that 68 percent of the students who responded believe that citizens’ free speech rights are “extremely important” to democracy.
However, the figure pales in comparison to the number of students who think colleges should be able to muzzle speech that could be considered “offensive.”
Seventy-eight percent of students said colleges should be able to restrict free speech to ban the use of “language that is intentionally offensive to certain groups,” such as slurs against a student’s race, gender or sexual orientation.
The 2020 edition of the poll found that support for restraining offensive speech has grown. When the poll was conducted in 2016, only 69 percent of students thought colleges should be able to restrict certain forms of speech. That rose to 73 percent in 2017.
The poll noted an increase in students who think colleges should be able to restrict what the Knight Foundation called “costumes that stereotype certain racial or ethnic groups.” In the 2020 poll, 71 percent of students said they felt this way, compared to 60 percent in 2017.
College campuses reflect the same partisan divide that polls show everywhere else in the country, according to the survey.
Students who identify as Democrats favor restrictions more than those who are independents or Republicans. The poll said this peaks on the question of colleges being able to restrict stereotypical costumes, which is supported by 82 percent of Democrats but gets a roughly evenly split reaction among Republicans.
The Confederate flag also divides students along partisan lines.
Sixty-eight percent of Democratic students said they think colleges should be able to restrict clothing with an image of the Confederate flag, compared to only 26 percent of Republican students.
Gender and race also divide students, according to the poll, which noted that female and black students generally support restrictions on free speech more than male and white students.
Most students understand that free speech can be a casualty of a campus climate, with 63 percent agreeing with the statement that the climate at their campus “deters students from expressing themselves openly.”
That result was up from 54 percent in 2016.
The poll also found that students believe campus conservatives are less able to express themselves on campus.
In assessing the climate of social media, where students said most discussions take place, only 29 percent said social media debate is civil, compared to 41 percent in 2016.
The poll also said there’s a climate of fear on social media.
Fifty-eight percent said social media debate is negatively impacted by students living in fear that they will be “attacked or shamed” over their views. That figure was up from 49 percent in 2016.
Although almost three-quarters of the students surveyed said they believe colleges should not restrict political views that could upset others, 78 percent supported so-called “safe spaces” where what students perceive as “threatening actions, ideas or conversations” are banned.
“Results are based on web interviews with a random sample of 3,319 U.S. college students aged 18 to 24 who are currently enrolled as full-time students at four-year colleges, including an oversample of students at historically black colleges and universities,” the survey’s methodology section said.
“Web interviews were conducted Oct. 28-Dec. 19, 2019,” it added, pointing out that the margin of error was plus- or minus-2 percentage points.
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