From Middlebury to Berkeley, Chapel Hill to Minnesota, battles over free speech are raging on America’s college campuses. Student protests and recent incidents involving violence and loss of life, have focused campus communities on the meaning of free speech and how it should — and should not — be exercised. It’s sad to say that one of the fundamental rights of American democracy, authored by James Madison and guaranteed in the United States Constitution, is under attack in the very places where such rights should be most protected.
I’m sure more than a few people observing the chaos on campuses across the country, have wondered: What are the views of college students regarding the right to free speech?
Preliminary results from a Brookings Institution Survey that asked college students views on the first amendment suggest there are a lot of reasons to worry. Key findings include:
Hate Speech. Only 39 percent of respondents said the Constitution protected “hate speech.” A higher percentage of respondents (44 percent) said the Constitution did not protect “hate speech”
Disruptions. Most respondents (51 percent) said it was OK for student groups opposed to a speaker’s views to disrupt a speaker’s presentation so it could not be heard. Forty-nine percent of respondents called actions to disrupt a speaker, unacceptable.
Violence. By an 81 to 19 margin, students said it is not acceptable for individuals opposed to a speaker’s view to use violence to prevent the speaker from speaking. That 19 percent of respondents — almost 1 in 5 students — approve of violence to disrupt a speaker–is surprising and very concerning.
Learning Environment. When asked what sort of learning environment students would prefer, 53 percent of students opted for one that bans offensive viewpoints or speech against certain groups of people; 47 percent of respondents choose one that fosters an open learning environment, where students are exposed to all types of speech and viewpoints.
Results are also broken down by political affiliation, type of institution and gender. The parsing makes for some interesting numbers, but we won’t go into those here.
Suffice it to say that ignorance about the first amendment extends to all groups and types of institutions. In some cases, the ignorance is even worse at high-priced private institutions.
There is certainly a lot of educating to be done. Let’s begin with a complete overhaul of US civics education.